Actions

Work Header

∼ Ren's * Flower ∼

Chapter Text

Arakita was a dick, and that didn’t come as a surprise at all.

Actually, Toudou should have known better than accepting that asshole’s invitation for dinner (at Arakita and Shinkai’s apartment, on top of that), but you just didn’t refuse Shinkai’s polite requests (“…in memory of the good ol’ times, Jinpachi! Come on, it will be fun!”), even if it meant dealing with his bastard of a boyfriend. Partner. Whatever it was that they called themselves these days.

And if Toudou was honest with himself (which he hardly ever was, especially when in a foul mood), the evening hadn’t even been so bad, at first: it had felt nice to see his college buddies again and catch up in front of a meal. They had even called Fuku, halfway through dinner, right before dessert, to scold him or missing a wonderfully baked apple pie (not that it was his fault: the guy was training on the other side of the country for an upcoming, extremely important race, after all).

How exactly the liquor had made its way on the table even after all the beers, Toudou couldn’t tell, but he clearly remembered feeling tipsy and slightly intoxicated, at some point, much like his two hosts. It was the kind of inebriated state that loosened tongues and made people prone to idiocy, though in a safe, entertaining way. It also used to make Toudou and Arakita much more childish and easy to provoke, but given the fact that they were currently rolling on the floor, tickling and tackling each other while butting heads, it was clear that they had both completely and conveniently forgotten that.

-          The fuck you mean you’ve never entered a sex shop!?

-          Shut up! What does it have to do with anything?!

-          For fuck’s sake, Toudou?! How old are you, twenty-three!? And you’ve never even walked into one?!

-          It’s tawdry!

-          It’s convenient.

-          I don’t need weird stuff to have fun, you perverted bastard!

-          That’s exactly the kind of shit a prude like you would sprout!

-          Who are you calling a prude, you jerk!?

-          You sure look like one, with those lame headbands of yours!

Shinkai watched them lazily from the couch he was slumped over, Toudou straddling Arakita in a very unstable way, and raised a brow.

-          You should be more open with your sexuality, Jinpachi.

Great.

-          Your advice is totally unnecessary, thank you very much.

Arakita barked an ugly laugh from beneath him.

-          Please. When was the last time you got some!?

-          From a man or a woman?

Shinkai chuckled.

-          Ah! He got you with this one, Yasutomo! Guys, I’m still hungry: I’m ordering pizza, do you want some, too?

Toudou cringed.

-          More carbs? At this hour?

Arakita shoved him away (Toudou went down with an uncoordinated, undignified grunt) and sat up.

-          Get Sleeping Beauty a vegetarian one, no cheese. But tell them to put lots of sausages on half of it. Ham, too.

Toudou looked horrified.

-          That’s my share, dumbass. And yes, I have every intention of gulping it down with a can of Bepsi. Maybe two.

Toudou groaned, utterly defeated, and crawled towards the low table in the middle of the small living room with the intention of snatching the alcohol they’d placed there, health be damned in front of such debauchery.

-          How did we survive college, again!?

*

Having pizza delivered to your house on a late Friday night was no easy affair, which was why they found themselves sprawled over each other on Arakita and Shinkai’s short and battered sofa, still positively drunk, waiting for their food in front of what appeared to be a rerun of Arakita’s favourite drama show.

-          I told you it’s not.

-          Oh, please, Yasutomo. You hardly ever miss an episode.

-          Because that’s all there is to watch when I have a free hour!

-          I record it for you every Tuesday.

-          Shinkai, what the fuck!?

-          It’s fine, Arakita. We all have our guilty pleasures.

-          It’s not a guilty pleasure.

-          Well, definitely not a pleasure, but I’d surely feel guilty for watching it.

-          Ah?!

-          I mean, who wrote the script, a baboon?

-          Shut up!

-          I bet blonde’s his sister. Oh yep. Here we go. See? She’s his sister. So they can’t be together. How bad. Totally unexpected since this is episode eight and the series has, like, twenty-four.

-          Toudou...

-          What fucked up logic did the evil godmother use, anyway? Make him lust after his real sister so he can’t be with the other one, the brunette one?

-          She didn’t know he was already harbouring feelings for his real real sister.

-          But why doing this to the fake real sister! Isn’t she her real daughter, after all?

-          They have an awful history together and she doesn’t know that the evil godmother is actually her mother, too. Listen, in the past season, the-

-          I don’t care about what happened last season if it led to this poor excuse for a dialogue! Did you hear that line!? Would you call that flirting!? Would you?! Oh my god.

-          Oh yes, because you’d totally know everything about flirting, wouldn’t you, now!

Toudou jumped on the sofa (and on Shinkai’s feet, but the latter didn’t give any sign of discomfort).

-          EXCUSE ME!? If I remember correctly, and I do, I was the one being treated coffee all through college by the totally awesome, totally straight, totally turned Toudou-sexual bartender of our cafeteria!

The doorbell rang. Shinkai got up.

-          Oh, our pizzas have arrived.

Arakita had taken the chance to stand on the couch as well, a cushion in his hand.

-          Fine, King-Of-The-Fucking-Pick-Up-Lines! Go get the totally straight delivery guy, then!

-          I bet I can get his number in less than three minutes!

-          I bet he won’t even look at your ugly mug!

-          Fine! Watch me!

-          Hell yeah, I will!

Shinkai stepped away from the peephole, hands raised, and made to disappear into the kitchen.

-          Yasutomo. Jinpachi. I think Touichirou is waiting.

*

In hindsight, Toudou should have been suspicious in hearing Shinkai refer to the pizza guy by his first name, but he was still a little high from all the drinking and more than a little fired up by Arakita’s taunts, not to mention eager to prove his innate abilities. So, he hadn’t paid attention to the small detail. Unfortunately.

Obviously, Izumida Touichirou had not given in to his charm, no matter how brilliant, flirty and absolutely, terrifyingly, devastatingly handsome Toudou had been: after several, painful minutes in which the poor guy had turned various shades of green and grey in front of his advances, Toudou had had to admit defeat.

It wouldn’t have burned that much, though, if, when it was high time someone saved Izumida from his grasps, Shinkai hadn’t come out of the kitchen looking like sex incarnated, a few bills in his hands and a snack bar suggestively tucked between his plump lips. When he had paid for their pizzas and thanked Izumida for the trouble, Toudou was sure “Touichirou” was just a blink away from creaming his own pants. The fact that Shinkai had managed all of that unconsciously only made the situation more unfair.

As Izumida handed Shinkai the change (with trembling hands, nevertheless), he also noticed Shinkai’s shirt and seemed to regain some of his ability to speak in coherent sentences.

-          A-Are you a fan of the band, too?

-          I think the last album was their best, so far.

-          M-Me too! Especially the sixth track! The drum solo is…

-          …really something else. Yeah.

-          Ehm… I have d-discounted tickets for their upcoming live… you know… from work. I t-think our chain sponsored the tour or something… anyway… maybe you might… be interested?

-          That’s very nice of you, Touichirou. We should talk about it, one of these days.

-          R-Really!?

-          Yeah. I work the morning shift at the coffee shop near the high school. Pass-by, I’ll treat you.

-          W-Would Monday be alright for you? Sounds like a plan. See you on Monday, then.

-          Y-Yes! Thank you! And g-goodnight!

The door closed behind his shoulders but it wasn’t enough to muffle the enthusiastic OH MY GOD!!! that left Izumida’s mouth.

Oh my god, indeed. Toudou hadn’t even been able to make him smile and Shinkai had got a date. It mattered little that Izumida was notoriously gay as hell for Shinkai (that demon), and had been for ages, which might have compromised Toudou’s chances from the beginning: it didn’t erase the fact that Toudou had been thoroughly humiliated. His ego had been shattered, his reputation destroyed but that wasn’t the worst.

The worst was that Arakita, ominous laughter already ringing in Toudou’s ears, was not going to let it go. At all. 

 

***

 

Which was exactly why, the following Monday, Toudou found himself in a quiet, unknown road: it was close enough to a popular, important train station to be reached easily on foot or by bike, but hidden enough in the neighbourhood to grant people some privacy.

Damn Arakita and damn my big mouth!

*

-          I have to do what!?

-          Grow a pair of balls and be a man, for once. It’s a new shop, lots of people recommend it and I think it will be a good starting point, for you.

-          I’m not visiting a sex shop!

-          You’re not merely visiting it, in fact. I don’t want you to step in and run out: you have to buy something.

-          No way!

-          I’m meeting you for lunch at half past noon: bring the package and the receipt. Mind you: I will only accept articles wrapped in their paper and carried in their original, sealed, printed bag. If you try to trick me, I’ll know.

-          Holy shit, it was just a stupid drunken bet!

-          You gave your word, Jinpachi. Do you want to take it back, now?

-          …I hope you choke on that cheese, Shinkai!

*

Of course, Shinkai hadn’t and Arakita had mailed him a map of the area. The shop he was supposed to visit was marked with a red circle. Toudou got off his bike and took the folded piece of paper out of his back pocket: he was sure to have turned in the right direction, at the last intersection, but he was not familiar with the area and didn’t want to get lost or, god forbid, ask for directions.

Now that he looked around properly, though, he did feel a little dumbfounded: the neighbourhood was respectable. He checked the map once more, but there was no mistake: he was exactly where he was supposed to be. But there was a small canal streaming at his right, its riverbanks covered in bright green grass, and children on their way to school running excitedly up and down them. There were young mothers with their babies on strollers and grannies with their grocery bags. The smell of freshly baked bread hit Toudou’s nostrils and he spotted a cosy bakery not even ten feet away from him, people going in and out of it merrily and making the bell on the door ring insistently.

Most of the buildings on that side of the river were old and made of bricks, in western style: Toudou remembered the long renovation that had taken place in several parts of the city to recuperate that kind of buildings. The plan had been to turn them into a popular, vintage, fashionable choice for young, sophisticated, wealthy couples that were eager to start their families in a classy, overpriced nest. How could a squalid sex shop fit into such a neighbourhood? How could these… posh people tolerate such debauchery?

Feeling even more ashamed (and even angrier at Arakita, because really), Toudou pulled up the hood of his sweater and made a quick turn left, entering the wide but short alley that was highlighted on his map. He came to a halt almost immediately, blinked at the sign above his head and narrowed his eyes at the tiny, printed piece of paper in his hands. There he was, apparently.

But it couldn’t be, not really, because there weren’t flashy neon lights in front of him, no obscene posters, no telling silhouettes nor vulgar signs, no embarrassing mannequins and no… products at the windows. Actually, there were no windows. The wide glass panels were opaque, apart for a see-through strip about an inch wide that ran all around the square frame and created a minimalistic design towards the centre of the windows, where the name and logo of the shop were painted in essential, curvy black lines.

The interior was shielded from view, but Toudou had the impression of an open, luminous space. It had an innocent, innocuous look that irked Toudou’s sense of common decency. Hypocrites.

A couple of steps on the right was the door, a pretty thing in light coloured wood (could it be chestnut) framing wide panels of opaque glass that matched those at the windows. Again, the shop’s name and logo were there, this time at eye level, finely written and perfectly proportioned. Toudou had to admire the beauty of the calligraphy, despite everything. It was a simple design, all in all, but maybe there laid its strength: a stylized lotus flower at the centre, parting the words “Ren’s Flower”, written in a neat, eye-catching cursive. It gave a sense of peace. It was almost reassuring, in a sense.

And if it hadn’t been the name clearly spelled on its map, Toudou would have sworn he had gone to the wrong place, because there was no way that a filthy sex shop could look as chic as a spa. What if a child had walked inside? What if an elderly couple did?

The more he stared at the closed door, the more he seethed, so in the end Toudou decided it was time to keep his word and stepped back. There was no place to secure his road racer: hence, he exited the alley and locked it in the allotted racks near the bakery, then returned in front of the infamous shop feigning ease. He took a deep breath, put a hand on the golden handle and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Toudou tried pulling, then, but the door didn’t budge at all. Annoyed, he squinted his eyes at the minute print that was right beneath the lotus flower on the glass: it was the opening hours and it gave him the confirmation he needed – the shop should have been open…

Only at that moment Toudou’s gaze fell properly on the square doorbell on the right side of the door: the first tag read “Ren’s*Flower – administration”, the second one “Ren’s*Flower – outlet”; there was a camera above them and a white plaque had been placed to cover a couple of bricks at their left. It said:

“To enter the shop, please ring the bell. The direction reserves the right to grant admission.”

Fantastic.
So he had to identify himself now. Admit to the whole world that he wished to visit that… cussed place. Be approved of (on what basis? And if they didn’t deem him suited for their ranks? Or worse, what if they did?!). Was there really no end to his humiliation? Had he not suffered enough, already?
(though, admittedly, this solved the ‘accidental visits’ problem at the root)

For a long minute, Toudou debated with himself if a silly gamble made under the influence of alcohol was worth his reputation, but there was no way Arakita would have let him live anymore, if he had backed out and called it off at that point. Thus, before he could question his own sanity again, Toudou squeezed his eyes shut and rang the doorbell. Then, he waited.

He had just started to sweat cold and admit that yeah, apparently, there was nobody inside and Arakita couldn’t blame him for it, could he? It was not Toudou’s fault that those people involved in such marketing were not serious at all and had obviously no idea of what respect towards their customers was – that the door clicked open. It barely made a sound when it unlocked, but for Toudou it was as loud as a bang.It managed to stop his heart in pretty much the same way.

Well, then. It had come the time to be a man.

Toudou put on his most confident face and went in.

*

…well, that was surprising.
He was expecting dim lights and a somehow secretive aura, not pure white walls (on a rich violet fitted carpet, nevertheless) and an open, wide, awfully well lit hall. Toudou stepped forward and walked through a discreet metal detector as the door closed softly behind him. On his left was the small room that faced the windows, bare except for a round table with a two-seater sofa and a couple of low armchairs, all in the same deep colour of the carpet. In front of the little lounge was a retractable door with a ‘staff only’ sign. On his right, instead, there was a neat pile of violet hand-baskets that came in two sizes, beneath yet another sign reporting the shop’s logo and the words:

“To guarantee the comfort and privacy of our visitors, Ren’s*Flower invites our customer to take advantage of our baskets. Thank you for your collaboration and good permanence inside our shop. – The Direction”.

Well. That was… unexpectedly considerate of them, Toudou mused as he snatched one of the smallest baskets and blushed scarlet. In front of him, slightly on the left, was a desk that worked evidently as a cash register too. It was white like the rest of the room, but it had two counters, both in the same violet of the baskets: one was high enough to reach the chest of a man of Toudou’s height; the other one was as high as a common desk. Toudou realized that they were build and designed in a way that would have prevented anyone but the cashier to see the individual purchases of every customer, provided that they used the appointed baskets. It was… sensitive, in a sense.

Soft music played in the background (he recognized a contemporary pianist whose name always slipped his mind), low enough to allow conversations in hushed tones but companionable all the same. In front of the desk was another short sofa, a square coffee table and a green plant at its sides.

The soothing feeling didn’t last, though, because as soon as Toudou had trespassed the desk, his attention had been caught by a wide, arch-shaped opening in the wall that allowed entrance to another, darker room. It was closed by a heavy-looking, violet velvet curtain, but what sent Toudou into a panic was the classy sign beside it, reading: “Adult Videos – courtesy of R. Production”. Toudou squawked.

In the haste of cleansing his mind from the thought of all the abominations laying behind that rich fabric, he spun around and faced the opposite wall. Only to meet a mirror arch, identical to the first one down to the tiniest fold of the curtain. The sign, this time, read: “Clothes and Accessorizes”. Toudou whimpered and felt like crying. With the heart in his throat, he turned around one last time, giving his back to the entrance and trying to lock those violet aberrations out of his field of vision. It kind of worked, mostly because his attention was caught by the third and last opening in the square hall: this one had no curtain and no sign, but the shop’s name and logo triumphed above the wide arch with the word OUTLET scribbled underneath the lotus flower.  

Toudou swallowed and for the umpteenth time considered escaping. Arakita’s sneering face popped up from nowhere, his hyena-like, derisive laugh already echoing in Toudou’s ears. Toudou blushed again and narrowed his eyes, holding the basket in front of himself like a shield. He couldn’t give Arakita that satisfaction. Thus, he took a deep breath, lowered his head and crossed the arched in a swift stride.

*

Nothing happened. No alarm went off, no stage-light was pointed at him, nobody took his picture and nobody started screaming his full name. Very carefully, Toudou lifted his gaze to have a look around: he was in a room much similar to the one he’d come from, just… fuller. But not in a bad way.

It appeared spacious and organized, and, above all, extremely clean: there wasn’t a single hair on the violet carpet, not a speck of dust on the glass shelves. The air was fresh and smelled faintly of lotus flowers. The colourful, brightly patterned merchandise was displayed in spotless glass cabinets, sorted by category (Toudou’s brain short-circuited as he read the hypocritically elegant cursive above every cupboard: “For him”, “For her”, “Anal stimulators”, “BSDM”…). Between a cabinet and the other were the neatly stashed boxes of the… stuff on sale, grouped by size and colour and creating an easy-to-navigate pattern through the room that added dynamicity to the place and stimulated the customers’ curiosity without making them feel overwhelmed and suffocated. In a couple of corners, promotional banners and cardboard expositors broke the carefully created balance and brought attention to temporary offers and special sales.

Toudou didn’t know where to start.

Then, the unimaginable happened and his worst nightmare came true: he heard voices coming in his direction.

His first instinct was to have a mental breakdown and throw a tantrum: who on earth could go shopping for sex toys on an early Monday morning!? He had chosen that hour exactly to be alone! He’d changed his shift at the rehabilitation centre just for that and it had been for naught?! Why did the gods hate him so much!? Was that the price he had to pay in exchange for the triple blessing that had been bestowed upon him (good looks, huge talent, terrific social skills – thank you very much)!?

His second instinct was to panic and squeeze himself behind the closest cardboard banner and hide among the discounted packages. Not his most mature idea, maybe, but that wasn’t his main concern at the moment: the talking couple had entered the room and stopped on its opposite side, right in front of the “For her” cabinet. The tall piles of pretty boxes partially hid them from Toudou’s view: from his impromptu shelter at ground level, Toudou could only see the woman. He was sure he didn’t know her, but there was something familiar in her features… she was wearing a large black hat (huge sunglasses proudly perched on top of it) with a silky white bow and her sinuous curves were clad in sober, yet very glamorous clothes. Her big purse was definitely designer material, not to mention the high-heeled pumps that shone at her feet. She was carrying, Toudou noticed with horror, not one, but two shopping baskets of the largest size: they already looked full, and she wasn’t even finished.

-          Thank you for letting me in before opening hours, Makishima-kun! It was very kind of you: you saved my life!

She was answered by a peculiar male voice that, Toudou guessed, had to belong to a shop assistant, since it was also followed by the twinkling of keys and the faint creak of a glass cabinet being opened.

-          It is no problem, Sachiko-san. My brother gave you an appointment, after all.

-          Yes, but I didn’t think he would have sent you to receive me at this ungodly hour! Tell him he should pay you more! Be sure that I will!

She was chatting merrily and without a hint of awkwardness, as they were acquainted…

-          Really, Makishima-kun, thank you for the lingerie. It’s hard to find things this cute and this comfortable in my size! And they’re very durable, too! I still have the first set I bought from your online store and it’s in great shape, it’s amazing!

-          It was nothing, really: we had to restock lots of models anyway, it was only fair to order some more especially for you. Besides, the new collection should arrive in a month…

-          Really!? Yay! I can’t wait to see it! Be sure that I’ll come and try everything! Are you sure you don’t need a model??? I don’t want to get paid, I’ll just settle for free clothes!

-          I’m afraid that’s something you’ll have to discuss with my brother, Sachiko-san, but who knows.

-          I love your designs so much…

-          Thank you. Your opinion is very important for us. By the way, Sachiko-san, here are the clitoral stimulators you asked about.

-          Oooh, very good! You know, they are going to be the hot topic for the upcoming season: I can’t leave your products out of the reviews!

-          Please, be kind with us.

Toudou clapped his hands over his mouth and screamed internally. Now he recognized her. She had been on the cover of one of his sister’s for-women-only magazines, a magazine that she had carelessly left around the inn for days and that he had picked up countless times, since they had guests and it wasn’t appropriate for them to see such things. Because the photograph on the cover showed a woman, the same woman a few feet away from him, smirking confidently at the camera while holding two neon-pink dildos as guns at the sides of her face. The caption had read “What Women Want” in bold letters. Anything else, Toudou had forgotten, and now he could only listen and endure.

-          This is the fourth clitoral vibrator in our L line; you probably remember the previous three: we have tried to implement them and at the same time complement them with a different product. As you can see, there are no intentional textures this time, and the surface is completely smooth: what makes it unique in our catalogue, along with the rest of the line, is the asymmetrical shape. It may appear too peculiar at first glance, but we hoped it could appeal to the eye as well, and I can assure you that it’s ergonomic and comfortable to hold. Don’t let its dimensions fool you: it might be smaller than its brothers, but it is more versatile than them: the flatter side allows broader stimulation, while the tip was designed for a pinpointed one. It was created for external use only: you can tease erogenous zones with it, like the entrance of the vagina and, always externally, mind you, the prostate too, so it’s not strictly a female-only toy…

Toudou wanted to die.

-          …the controls are stripped to the minimum, the button is easy to locate and the vibrator comes, as usual, with through instructions in the form of a fully illustrated booklet. There are no vibration patterns this time, but we worked to strengthen their intensity and make the battery more durable. The toy is obviously rechargeable, completely waterproof and, as the vast majority of our products, is coated in silicone. It has a bit of a drag, so I would recommend adding a drop or two of our specific, water-based lubricant to obtain a better performance. The package contains everything you need.

-          I really adore your colours, Makishima-kun: they are quirky, adorable and a true trademark!

-          The second vibrator we want to recommend you is another piece of design, in our opinion: still medical-grade silicone, still rechargeable, but this time, you can do it with an USB port.

-          Oh! How practical!

-          Yes, it’s very travel-friendly. And since only one of the arms is used for actual penetration, it can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth and one of our toy cleaners. The control button here is on top of the clitoral arm, but the main feature here is the remote control that comes with the toy: you can use it yourself or give it to your partner, which opens lots of possibilities. You see, the vibrator comes in one size, but it was designed to fit any kind of body and stay in shape even when the wearer stands up or walks at a normal pace. This characteristic and the medium distance range of the remote open up several scenarios and, I’m sure, will tickle your fantasy…

Toudou whimpered.

-          You can bet on it! Gosh, you’ve made me pretty curious, Makishima-kun, I can’t wait to go home and test them both!

-          I hope they won’t disappoint you.

-          Oh, believe me, I’m sure they won’t. Come on, let me pay for the clothes so I can bring those babies home. Mama is going to have some fun today!

Toudou stayed where he was, frozen and terrified, as the cash register rang for an obscene amount of money (“Thank god I get sponsors for the toys, I’d be broke otherwise!”) and the cheerful lady exited the shop like a hurricane (“Bye, Makishima-kun! Say hello to Ren for me! When the video’s up I’ll let you know!”).

When everything was quiet again, Toudou heard the man at the counter sigh and allowed himself a minute to breathe in relief as well. But the deities were apparently not done with him, yet.

The shop assistant had sneaked up to him, the noise of his steps completely drowned by the carpet and the music in the background.

-          Mh… excuse me, sir? May I help you?

It felt a bit like that time in college, when Arakita had emptied a whole bucket of ice-cold water over Toudou’s head while he was wearing white gym clothes. And much like that time, Toudou could only stare ahead of himself, mouth opening and closing in a very dumb, very unflattering way. But this time he wasn’t facing a fellow classmate and member of his fan-club, a girl that he knew and with which he could joke the prank off.

This time, his eyes landed the most peculiar, most unusual, most attractive guy Toudou had ever had the (mis)fortune to meet. Now, if one was to examine all of Toudou’s more or less casual partners, they might have found a slightly recurring pattern in his hook-ups: he went for the pretty, cute, petit girls with feminine tastes and for the more-than-average, handsome-though-not-as-handsome-as-me boys with gentle attitudes. The man in front of him fitted neither description, with his long limbs, long face, long hair. Everything about him looked elongated (though Toudou was still crouching on the floor: that might have altered his perception a bit) or shaped weirdly (what was with those eyes? Those eyebrows?) and, for the love of everything sacred, his hair was green. And not even a normal green (as if there could actually be something normal about green hair in the first place), but a vibrant, iridescent colour streaked with red.

What struck Toudou the most was that… it worked, in a sense. Those legs really went on for a mile and, from the way those extra-skinny jeans hugged them, they looked pretty toned and muscular, despite their thinness. The black apron, embroidered with the shop’s name and logo, brought out the pallor of the man’s skin and the bright colours of his hair. The tight knot that kept the smock in place highlighted a very slim waist and the loose side-ponytail left uncovered an extremely pretty, extremely tempting neck.

Toudou had no time for fantasies, though. This… captivating guy worked into that cursed sex shop and Toudou had just heard him explain the marvels of clitoral vibrators as he would have done with a pair of basketball shoes. It was suddenly too much, all those emotions together like that, and he did the only sensible, rational thing his adult mind came up with: he fled. But he did with style, putting on his best I-Know-What-I’m-Doing-Everything-Is-Under-Control face and smiled broadly at the man, picking a package from the lowest shelf of the expositor and standing up in a fluid motion.

Fuck. “Makishima”, as the tag read, had very blue eyes. And long lashes. And a beauty mark under them. And another, definitely kissable one near his lips. Thin lips. Inviting lips. Fuck.

Toudou swallowed. He couldn’t make a fool of himself in front of a hot stranger. Yes, he was employed in a field that Toudou had issues with, still, he was inducing reactions in Toudou’s body that the latter had not felt in a while. Casually, he placed the package in his own basket and twirled a stray lock of hair around his fingers, and smiled confidently.

-          Thank you, but I don’t think it would be necessary. I’ve found exactly what I was looking for.

Take that, Arakita. Let’s not be said that Toudou Jinpachi can’t land on his feet, always. Makishima blushed slightly. Jackpot.

-          V-Very well. When you’re done, just call me and I will take care of you.

Toudou widened his eyes just a bit, but collected himself quickly enough and raised a haughty brow instead. Makishima faltered.

-          Your purchase! I will take care of your purchase!

You can take care of me whenever you want, hottie.

-          Actually, I believe that I am done, for now.

-          Alright. Just follow me, then.

Makishima turned around and Toudou took a second to compose himself. What the hell had gotten into him!? What had been that, just now?! What kind of game was he even playing, flirting shamelessly with a guy he had just met in a room full of tasteless, silicone dicks?! He had meant to play safe and get out as soon as possible, not to hit on the shop assistant with poorly concealed innuendos! That wasn’t even his style! Exhaustion was making him reckless and-

Fantastic. Makishima just had to have the most mesmerizing …back

Toudou’s eyes darted downwards and he slapped a hand over them. Nope. He didn’t need to go there, too.

*

Makishima wrapped up his package with swift movements, although a bit jerky, and Toudou feigned casualness leaning on the counter with fake, absent-minded ease. His mouth watered at the sight of toned, hairless forearms. He had the sudden urge to move forward and catch a glimpse of Makishima’s hands, but the adrenaline went down as seconds passed and, suddenly, Toudou went back to his senses and to more important concerns. Such as how much he was going to be charged for an article he hadn’t even looked at. There had been “lubricant” written somewhere near a bottle in the pack, which reassured him a little, even though he didn’t really like the idea of spending a fortune over something so …trivial.

It wasn’t much, in the end, probably thanks to the promotional sale, and he handed Makishima some bills with a relaxed beam. No card. He couldn’t bear the thought of having that one payment tracked and associated to him.

Makishima handed him the change and a sealed, violet shopping bag sporting the words “Ren’s*Flower” on one side. Before Toudou could snatch it and run away without embarrassing himself more, Makishima passed him another card with a sheepish smile. It wasn’t very endearing.

-          Since our new line is coming out soon, we’re giving our customers one coupon for every purchase: it grants you a 10% discount on an article of your choice from our new collection. The expiration date is written on the back. Thank you for choosing our shop. We hope our products will meet your expectations.

Toudou accepted the card with grace and fled the shop as fast as he could.

*

Makishima waited for the door to close with a thud, hid behind his palms and groaned.

The most handsome, most beautiful, the downright hottest guy he’d ever met, one that looked like he’d just walked out of Makishima’s wildest wet dream, had just exited his shop and Makishima had managed to make an utter fool of himself on at least three different occasions. Why did he have to sound like a whiny schoolgirl while giving his speeches? He had seen the bewildered looks that the man had given him: surely his looks had been a hit, though in the worst way possible. Not to mention the haste with which the man had left the shop: Makishima had surely scared him away with his lame attempts at smiling.

Damn you, Yuusuke, don’t you ever learn!?

He had just bumped his head on the counter for the third time, in defeat, when the front door jingled open and a hurricane stormed inside in the shape of his brother, actual owner of the shop and, thus, his employer too.

-          You have no right to look so gloomy this early in the morning, baby, not when you have a doting brother that loves you enough to bring you your favourite bagel and extra-sugared drink for breakfast. Here, catch!

He grabbed the paper bag mid-air, opened it and sniffed. Yes, it was his favourite, indeed.

-          Do you have to be so noisy all the time?

Ren placed a paper cup of flavoured coffee on the counter and flopped down on the small sofa in front of it, patting the empty seat beside him. Yuusuke took the cup and the bagel and joined him.

-          Yes, if it serves to drown your depressing thoughts. Rough morning, kid?

-          Not really. That porn-star friend of yours came by.

-          We’ve been over this. Sachiko is not a porn-star. She got famous on the internet making video reviews of sex toys and earned a hella lot of money with that. She has millions of subscribers, billions of views and a positive word from her is worth more than the most successful ad campaign. You treated her well, I hope.

-          I was the perfect shop assistant. I gave her the vibrators for free and made her a huge discount on the things she actually wanted to buy for herself.

-          Good. She’s been more useful to this shop than you’ll ever be.

-          Ohi! All the clothes she’s got so far are my designs!

Ren kissed his cheek in a childish way.

-          I know pup. I’m only exerting my Big Brother’s right to tease my little sibling like mad. You did well. I met Sachiko on my way here, she was happy. She told me I have to raise your wage and that she will say only good thing about us in her review.

-          She’s so after your dick…

-          Manners, Yuusuke! …and I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a very in love, very engaged man.

-          Kyoko is a saint and she doesn’t deserve you.

-          As I’m well aware of. Oh, yes, Sachiko also asked me if she could model for us. Again.

-          What did you say?

-          I told her no. Again.

-          Why? It would be a great move, strategically!

Ren looked at him softly and tucked a stray lock of green hair behind Yuusuke’s ear.

-          Because I already have the perfect model and I’ll never want anyone else. Now, let’s go back to work!

Ren got up and collected the garbage, moving behind the counter to reach the trashcan. His eyes fell on the computer screen.

-          Were there other clients, this morning?

Yuusuke, in the middle of standing up, froze. Failing miserably at keeping a straight, collected, neutral expression, he admitted:

-          Y-Yeah… no big deal…

Ren checked the transaction absent-mindedly, then took in his brother’s nervousness, and the faint blush on his cheeks. Yuusuke was trying, without a hint of success, to look casual and laid-back. So far, his lips were twitching upwards in a very disturbing manner and Ren was reminded of Yuusuke’s first day of school, when he had told their parents that he was fine with the same, identical face, only to throw up on Ren’s shoes as soon as they had left the house, half a minute later.

That time, Ren had acted like the responsible older brother he was supposed to be. This time, nearly twenty years later, he sighed and did what every doting siblings would have done in his place: pester his little brother until he called off their blood-relations.

-          Yuusukeeeee…

-          Nope.

-          Who exactly came here while I was away???

-          Nobody!

-          A nobody that made you all worked up and flustered???

-          It’s none of your business!

-          Was “nobody”’s ass worth the blush?

-          Ohi!

-          Quit the whining and spit it out, kid. Don’t make me check the surveillance cameras!

-          Fine! It was a hot one, okay? Average height, nice built, big indigo eyes, cool hair. And yes, great ass! There, satisfied?!

Ren whistled, then laughed out loud.

-          Holy shit, you checked him out for real! I was just messing with you, oh my god! …got his number?

-          What?! No! …I think I scared him away.

-          Yuusuke, sweet pup of mine, you are never going to get laid if you keep this creepy act up, you know.

-          Who said anything about getting laid?! I don’t even know him!

-          Yuusuke, babe, let me tell you a thing about the basics of human interactions: you casually meet a guy that gets your pants in a twist –don’t look at me like that, it’s normal, happens every day to millions of people-, you ever so casually try to grab his attention with a lame excuse and see if he picks up. He doesn’t? Who cares, it’s his loss and you’re not going to see him ever again. He does? Good for you: you just got yourself a free make-out session at the very least.

-          I hate you.

-          …in this specific case: he buys his product, you veeery discreetly write your name and number on a slip of paper and hand it to him along with the change or the receipt. Or better yet, you write it directly on the discount card in front of him with a look that says I-Want-To-Feel-Your-Dick-Down-My-Throat.

-          Ren!

-          Works every time. Trust me.

-          I don’t even know if he’s single! Or if he swings that way!

-          Despite the fact that no man in his right mind would refuse a blowjob, in my opinion, was he… casual? About his purchase? You know: easy, kind of confident? Off-hand smile, looking straight at you without faltering…?

-          Yeah… he kind of… smiled a lot. It was a bit… intimidating, in a sense.

-          Flirty mood? Safe lines, but spoken with a tone that gave away something a bit different?

-          M-Maybe…? I don’t really know if it was me being uncomfortable…

-          Yuusuke, trust me. You’re the most oblivious little shit walking on this planet: if you picked up something, then they guy was probably desperate.

-          Oh, for fuck’s sake.

-          He was blatantly after your ass and you didn’t notice: you’re such a disgrace.

-          Quit it!

-          Did he arrive while Sachiko was still here?

-          I let him in while she was in the dressing room.

-          And he was in the toys section when she talked to you.

-          Yeah, I… spotted him near the cardboards but then Sachiko got my attention.

-          And he never came around.

-          Nope.

-          …you’re a disgrace.

-          What!? Why!?

-          A gorgeous, famous, extrovert woman shops for sexy lingerie and vibrators without a hint of embarrassment and an adult, single, heterosexual male doesn’t even make his presence known, if only to say good morning, shake her hand, ask her for an autograph and tell his friends a funny story at lunch BUT he makes eyes at you and probably flirts with you shamelessly. Believable.

-          Okay, maybe there’s the tiny chance he’s into guys, after all.

-          He was all out to get some and you didn’t even give him your number! I’ve taught you nothing!

-          How do you even know he’s single?!

-          He bought a freakin’ egg pack, Yuusuke! A full set of eggs with lubricant!

Oh. Perhaps Ren had a point.

-          Well, you’d better be prepared next time.

-          What next time?!

-          An egg pack with lube, Yuu. Our products are top notch quality and he’s after your ass. He’ll be back.

Ren patted his shoulder and left for the video section. Yuusuke swallowed, more in fear than anticipation. His brother’s voice came muffled from the other room.

-          We’re gonna pop that cherry, babe!

Yuusuke, face unbearably hot, stormed in the clothes room and wrapped himself in the velvet curtain, dramatically.

-          Shut the fuck up, Ren!

*

-          Here! Are you satisfied!?

They were having lunch at Shinkai’s café (“What? His shift ends at noon today and he gets employees discounts!”) and Toudou had pretended to sit at the most secluded table (“As if parading around the city with this thing wasn’t already enough!” – “What the hell, Toudou? You kept it inside your backpack, moron!”). Once their food had arrived (“Did you really had the nerve to order me fast-food?” – “Ah!? I picked the menu with the lowest intake of fats, you ungrateful idiot!”), Toudou had slammed the violet shopping bag beside Arakita’s plate and left it at that. Arakita whistled.

-          I didn’t think you would have dared…

And then, he continued eating. Toudou fumed.

-          Well?!

-          Well what.

-          Aren’t you going to see what’s in there?

-          Hell, no! I don’t give a fuck about your kinks, man!

-          You made me do it!

-          I just enjoy messing up your life.

-          We are glad you overcame your prejudice against sex shops, Jinpachi.

They ate in silence for a while. Though silence was abit of a strong word: Arakita could hear Toudou tapping his foot under the table.

-          Stop it.

-          Stop what.

-          Your foot! Stop it.

-          Oh. Yeah.

-          …alright: what is it?

-          What is what?

-          You’re sighing like a maiden and you have that face that you always make when there’s something you desperately want to talk about, but you don’t because you’re overthinking it.

-          …no, I’m not.

-          You are an awful liar, Jinpachi.

-          …did you get yourself a date?

-          Gh!

-          What? It’s a nice place to hook up! What’s them like?

-          I haven’t hooked up with anyone! Geez!

-          Pity. It would have done you good to get some.

-          I get plenty.

-          Not lately, you don’t.

That turned the conversation off for a while. Then, Toudou exploded.

-          Oh, alright! That place is awesome, okay?! Like, really awesome: it’s neat and clean and organized and for the love of god it even looks… classy and I can’t even fathom why some elegant people able to put up such a posh place didn’t choose to invest in another kind of business! Why not a bookstore? A boutique? A beauty salon? Why!? And then there’s this guy that works there, and he’s nothing like my type and yet he had this… aura and I couldn’t help but stare at him like a middle-schooler!

-          Is he hot?

-          …I don’t know.

-          The fuck, Toudou?

-          It’s a bit… complicated.

-          It’s not complicated: you either want to fuck him or you don’t.

-          We’re talking about someone that speaks sex like it’s the weather! I shamelessly hit on him and he didn’t bat an eye. There’s no such thing as just want to fuck him

-          Did you get his number?

-          No!

-          Did you leave yours?

-          No!

-          What the hell, Toudou! How do you think you’ll get into his pants if you don’t ask him out?!

-          I don’t even know if he likes men!

-          If he’s so comfortable with sex like you said he is, I have a feeling that whatever you have between your legs won’t matter very much.

-          Though he needs to be open about sex, Yasutomo. It’s his job: if he wasn’t clear and specific enough, people might get hurt with the toys.

-          Fair enough.

-          He’s… eccentric, though. Gives off this… vibes. I can’t really explain it.

-          Holy shit, you fell hard!

Toudou went red.

-          I haven’t fallen for anybody! I barely talked to him!

-          Whatever. You have a huge crush, then.

-          I… met an attractive person.

-          That is making you blush. Nobody makes you blush apart from me, Toudou. And that is because I’ve made it my personal mission to ruin your life.

-          Alright! I might have a little crush on the guy of the sex shop! So?

-          So you go back as soon as possible and get him.

-          What.

-          Where’s the usual Toudou-attitude? Where’s the I-Turn-Straight-Guys-Into-Toudou-sexuals confidence?

-          We’re speaking of a guy that most likely eats dick for breakfast. I don’t even know how to use a plug.

-          Where did you even learned that word, princess? By the way, that’s easy: you take a hella lot of lube an-

-          What Yasutomo is trying to say is: you can do it, Jinpachi. There’s more to sex than experience and kinks. I’m sure the two of you can have a great time just fine.

-          Nah, if he doesn’t loosen up he won’t go anywhere.

-          Yasutomo!

-          What? If I were a navigated sex guru that has seen all, done all, I wouldn’t settle for a quickie with an average, plain dick. I’d like to be surprised, at least. Impressed.

-          But how?!

-          Well, we need to think about it a bit more carefully.

Arakita opened the shopping bag and rolled his eyes.

-          We’ve surely got a looong way to go.

-          Eh?

-          You left him a pretty meaningful first message, today.

-          I don’t follow you.

Arakita took out from the bag what looked like a small basket with six sealed eggs and a bottle of lubricant.

-          Six-eggs pack and lube? Really?

Toudou’s blood drained from his face.

-          W-What’s wrong with that?

-          Toudou… do you know what these are? What they do?

He sighed and shook his head, defeated.

-          Jinpachi, these are currently the most popular masturbators around. Every egg has an inner pattern, and every year they come up with new ones. When the launching date gets closer, they make big discounts on the old sets, so to speak.

-          These things…

-          Can be used by couples, sure. But the vast majority of the purchasers don’t fit in that category. You know, if a lone male goes in by himself and buys this taking advantage of a sales promotion, there not much left to the imagination.

Shinkai munched on a handful of fries.

-          Well, at least he knows you’re single.

Toudou dropped his head on the table and groaned.

The man of his dreams thought he was a wanker.

Chapter Text

In the following three weeks, Toudou learned many things. The proper way to use the innocuous looking eggs he had bought by accident, for instance, and the acquired knowledge made him lock the deceiving things in the darkest, most hidden drawer of his closet.
He learned that the shop he had gone to had been open for less than a couple of months, but they had already been active online for almost two years.
He learned that Ren’s*Flower was actually a side brand born out of a unique, equally young senior brand named Ren’s Design.
He learned that Ren’s Design was a rising star in the world of fashion; that its creators and head designers were Japanese, but had their base in London; that their popularity had been in perpetual growth since their debut, five years prior, and the trend didn’t seem to budge at all. That boutiques from all over Europe had started requesting their clothes and people from every part of the world were ordering casual wear and accessorize from their online store.  That at one point, during the creative process, someone in the high-ranks of Ren’s Design had thought it could have been a good idea to invest in lingerie. That the faithful encounter with a newborn company specialized in sex toys had generated the already popular Ren’s*Flower.
And, last but not least, he learned that his older sister Hana was, apparently, an enthusiastic supporter of the brand: she had told him herself, after spotting the violet bag near the dustbin during a rare visit to her brother’s place. She had shrieked and rushed back to the living room, clutching the bag to her chest like a treasure and pointing an offended finger into Toudou’s face.

She radiated indignation too, though, as Toudou discovered a minute later, for all the wrong reasons:

-          You didn’t!!!

-          I know right! I’m sorry, sis, I can explain! It’s not what you think!

-          Tell me it was a gift!

-          Well…

-          Tell me a friend of yours came over for dinner and used this to carry a bottle of wine!

-          Actually…

-          Tell me you didn’t go to the outlet that just opened near the S stop!

Toudou felt very much like that one time when, at age eight, he had told Hana he was going to study in the library and had been later found in an arcade, books completely untouched. Hana had been so disappointed, and the sense of guilt that had consumed him that time was the same he was starting to feel now.

-          I’m sorry, sis.

-          HACHI!

-          Don’t be angry, I can explain.

-          AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME ANYTHING!?

-          I’m sor- wait, what?

-          Do you know how much I’ve waited for that shop to open!? Do you!?

-          I don’t follow you.

-          THEIR BRAS ARE THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO A GIRL! HAVE YOU SEEN THEIR LINGERIE AT ALL?!

-          N-Not really, I…

-          Bring me there!

-          WHAT?!

-          Let’s go, bring me there!

-          Are you serious?!

-          Come on! I can’t come and go as I please: we live so far, it’s too much trouble! I’ve already travelled ‘til here, let me have a look at that place!

-          First of all, they’re closed today, and above everything else I’M NOT ESCORTING MY SISTER TO A SEX SHOP!

-          There’s no way a sex shop is closed on Friday, idiot, and I want to buy lingerie: it’s not like we’ve never shopped for it together!

-          You are my sister!

-          Your older sister, you stupid brat! I helped mom changing your diapers and wiping your ass, don’t you dare act all cocky and prude with me!

-          Go there with your husband!

-          My fiancé. And I can’t go with Hiro, those things are supposed to be a surprise for him!

-          Spare me.

-          Please, Hachi? It will be fun!

No, it would have been a nightmare. But Toudou had never been able to stop the typhoon that was his older sister, so…

*

…so there he was, a little more than a hour later, ringing the infamous doorbell with the “Ren’s*Flower – outlet” tag, trying to ignore Hana’s squeals of delight.

-          Cut it down! You are an adult woman.

-          A soon-to-be-married adult woman that is about to hunt down the lingerie for her wedding and honeymoon in her favourite store!

Before he could brace himself, the door clicked open and Toudou was unceremoniously dragged inside.

-          Show me around, Hachi!

What if Makishima was there? What was Toudou supposed to do? What could he say? During the train ride and the short walk from the station his sister had demanded all of Toudou’s attention with her constant blabbering, so he hadn’t had the time to come up with an actual plan. He couldn’t tell Hana that he hadn’t wanted to accompany her because of his crush on the iridescent guy behind the counter! On the other hand, he couldn’t face Makishima like that, at his older sister’s mercy, flustered and unprepared. It would have been the end before the chance of an actual beginning (of what kind, exactly, and following which dynamics, Toudou wasn’t sure about. Yet).
But Makishima was nowhere to be seen, much like the previous time, and Toudou breathed in relief. At his right, Hana had already made herself at home and snatched one of the larger baskets. She looked keen on commenting more or less loudly on everything she laid her eyes on: after less than a minute, Toudou had shut her out completely, her voice just a monotone buzz at the back of his mind.
“Geez, people who can’t shut up surely are a handful!”

Hana made a rushed tour of the video section (“Look! They have a nice collection of titles from very serious agencies. Not much stuff but plenty enough to satisfy every taste, I think. And these companies have received lots of praise, recently, because of their strict policies about healthcare and actor’s rights. They are a big deal overseas.” – “Why are you such an expert on European porn!?” – “Why are you not!?”), then pulled Toudou through the actual outlet, eyes shining.

-         I have this one! – she said pointing at a bright green… thing with orange and neon pink polka dots printed on the smooth surface. Its shape left very little to the imagination.

-         W-What do you mean by that?! – Toudou stuttered, feeling his sanity slip away.
Hana snickered.

-         Are you stupid? It means exactly what I said: I’ve bought this specific vibrator, it’s from last year’s collection. It’s very good.

-         H-How!? WHY!?

-         Jinpachi, you do realize I am a grown up, sexually active woman with a caring boyfriend and a functioning credit card, do you? I bought it online, they ship overseas, bless them. It was Hiro’s present for last Valentine’s. He was very happy. Maybe I was happier, though.

-         I’m your brother

-         My little brother, and everything you know about dating girls and putting the right things in the right holes you learned from me, so quit acting as if I’m traumatizing you by admitting I have sex regularly and I enjoy it.

-         This is wrong. This is so wrong…

-         Come, let’s get to the fun part! Did you really skip this section, last time?!

-         I had no interest in…

Hana puled him through the velvet curtain eagerly.

-          …panties.

*

The atmosphere inside that room was very different in comparison to the rest of the shop. The walls were dark, for starters: glittery panels layered them from floor to ceiling, a rich indigo that was several shades darker than the carpeted floor but whose shiny inserts reflected the white neon lights and made the place positively shine. Strategically placed mirrors enhanced the effect and everywhere Toudou looked was a triumph of sparks and colours. Underwear of every type, fabric and size hung from every available surface, lingerie like Toudou had never seen before, a feast of lace, beads, jewels, inserts and patterns that literally hypnotized the viewer at first glance. And accessorizes, surely meant to complement the sets, that practically turned them into proper outfits, as unreasonable as that sounded.

At his side, Hana looked on the verge of passing out.

-          I’ve died and gone to heaven, Hachi. Tell mom and dad I loved them both. Hiro, too.

Toudou sighed loudly and followed her towards the bras, meekly.

*

-          Just… what the hell are you doing?

Ren’s surprised voice startled him and Yuusuke shot upright with a gasp. He was kneeling under the counter, though, so the sudden action only resulted in him smacking his head against the flat surface, at full force. Yuusuke slumped back on the floor, groaning in pain in a rather pathetic way. Ren was not amused.

-          Shit. That hurt.

-          I’m pretty sure you deserved it. Whatever it is that you’ve done, this time.

-          Geez, thanks.

-          Care to tell me why you’re wasting the afternoon near the trash bin instead of, you know, doing some actual work? I’m pretty sure I fed you enough, at lunch.

-          Shut up, my head is exploding…

-          It’s a miracle you haven’t cracked it open, actually. Here, come sit upright and let me have a look. Now don’t say I don’t give a shit about your well-being… should I fetch the ice-pack?

-          No… just let me go…

An excited female voice could be heard inside the clothes room. Ren eyes Yuusuke questioningly.

-          We have customers?

Yuusuke turned the chair around to avoid looking at Ren and made to get up. Or to crawl back under the counter, it wasn’t really clear. Either way, Ren stopped him by leaning on the chair’s armrests and effectively trapping his brother where he was.

-          Yuusuke?

Yuusuke pointedly looked to the side.

-          Yeah… about that…

Behind the velvet curtain, a male voice joined the female one. Ren turned his head to it, then went back to glance at his brother, red to the tip of his ears, and grinned like the sadistic maniac that he was.

-          He’s here.

-          No!

-          He’s come back! Your crush has actually come back!!! …what the actual fuck were you doing on the floor?!

-          I… might have seen him through the camera of the doorbell and panicked. A bit.

-          What are you waiting for!? He’s in your world right now! You have created pretty much every single article of clothing in that room! Go say hi!

Yuusuke shook his head so hard that some of his hair flopped around wildly. Ren sighed.

-          Alright. I’m going, then.

He made to move away, but was stopped by a wild pull at his apron. Yuusuke had grabbed it by the knot and was keeping him from leaving.

-          Nononononononono please Ren don’t mess things up pleasepleasepleasepl-

Ren sighed again and turned around.

-          We ran out of the popular sizes: the drawers need to be restocked. And the old catalogues have to be replaced by the new ones: they arrived a couple of hours ago, they’re in those boxes in the storage room along with the new collection. I’m not being an ass, it’s actual work we need to do. If you don’t want to use it to your own advantage, fine: I’ll take care of it for you. Though in this case, I need you to make an inventory of all the anal toys: I think there might have been a mistake in the order we filled and I want to make sure before we actually send it.

Yuusuke nodded, looking slightly sick.

-          Just… don’t… do anything, okay?

Ren ruffled his hair.

-          Only my job!

Yuusuke didn’t exactly feel reassured.

*

Not even a minute after Hana had disappeared in the changing rooms with an armful (and a full basket) of sensual clothes, the heavy velvet curtain moved and a man went in.

Actually, a couple of large boxes went in, but Toudou figured that there had to be someone behind them. The thin legs he spotted and the uncovered forearms made his heart beat faster for a moment, then the man’s feet got tangled in the carpet and he fell forward with a grunt. Recklessly, Toudou lunged towards him, but only managed to get a hold on the box on top. It was surprisingly light. The man stilled himself in time and went down on one knee gracefully, but the second, heavier box wasn’t so lucky: no matter how soft the carpet was, the sealing tape had been already taken off and hit caused the box’s content to spill everywhere.

The man groaned and Toudou was disappointed to see that it wasn’t Makishima: this one had short brown hair. Still, Toudou had no reason to not help him. He lowered the box he had caught on the floor and extended a hand towards the man. His sister called from the changing rooms.

-          What was that, Hachi?

-          It’s alright, Hana, just a misstep. Here, are you okay?

The man accepted the hand and got up. He was wearing the same apron Makishima had, but with no name-tag, and was staring at Toudou with a slightly amused, yet crooked, grin. Toudou had the impression he was being scanned and cleared his throat. The man left his hand and looked around with a sigh, breaking eye contact.

-          Yes, thank you. That carpet is awful, I stumble over it, like, twice a week. Good catch, by the way: you saved a pretty important box!

-          Oh, it was more a lucky coincidence than anything…

The man was glancing at the catalogues and promotional materials scattered all over the floor with a dejected expression, so Toudou added, quickly:

-          …ehi, do you need a hand with those?

-          What? Oh, that’s very nice of you, but I couldn’t ask that from a customer.

Before Toudou had had time to react, the man had crouched again and straightened the fallen box. With a few wide swipes of his long arms, he managed to gather lots of the dropped items and in a matter of seconds most of the spilled goods had returned to their place. He was still searching the floor with a frown, though. Toudou, who couldn’t stand passively observing someone else work without lifting a finger himself, knelt as well and piled in front of them all the white catalogues he could reach. Then, his hand fell over a dark, thick folder that he hadn’t noticed before: its colour made it difficult to spot on the carpet. It was supposed to be sealed, but the button had come off in the fall and…

The shop assistant snatched it away harshly, but his features softened almost immediately once the folder was safe in the box again.

-          Sorry – he admitted – that’s private material. Franchise policy.

-          Oh, I didn’t want to pry, my bad.

-          Here – he said handing Toudou a brand new booklet – These are limited edition and meant to be browsed inside the shops: we are not supposed to give them to the customers, but take one. As a thanks for your help.

Toudou accepted it and put it into his bag.

-          Thank you.

Right then, the peace was broken.

-          Hachi! Come and look at this one, will you?

-          Excuse me, the boss is calling.

-          Better not make her wait, then.

The man winked and proceeded to open the other box, taking out piece after piece of flashy underwear, folding them neatly and sorting them in their appointed drawers.

Toudou went to look at his sister.

*

He came out of the changing rooms what felt like an eternity later, arms full of discarded bras and matching panties that were not of Hana’s liking. Right arm: dump in the proper bin for the staff to fix, later; left arm: hang back where they belong and find a bigger size, please.

Rolling his eyes to Hana and her attitude, he was surprised to see that the shop assistant from before had already left. There was no sign of the little accident and, instead, there were neat piles of catalogues placed strategically in the right corners, along with tasteful cardboard banners that highlighted the new arrivals. Distracted from the elaborate, beaded set on display at his eye level in the racks, Toudou involuntarily dropped the lacy baby-blue petticoat that Hana had demanded in a D-cup. He bent to retrieve it and made sure he hadn’t accidentally stained it, when his eyes fell on the corner of the rack. There was something under it, some kind of rigid piece of paper peeking out from the wooden structure. Perhaps it had got lost in the ruckus with the boxes: Toudou thought the shop assistant might have needed it, so he tried to pull it out with his index finger. It slid out easily and he brought it up under the light.

Then, he froze.

It wasn’t a promotional card. It was a professional-looking photograph and Toudou had eyes only for its main subject. A subject with a very slim body and very iridescent, very green hair.

And very little clothes on.

-          Hachi! Did you find them?

Toudou shot up straight and looked around in sheer panic: there weren’t cameras around, but he felt watched. Without thinking, as a robot, he slipped the photo into his jacket, collected all the things Hana had asked for and brought them to her. He slipped her curtain tightly shut before she had the chance to make a remark, threw himself in the booth beside hers and slumped on the velvety stool inside it. Then, slowly and carefully, with shaking hands, he took the picture out of his inner pocket. Luckily, it hadn’t wrinkled.

For long moments, he stared at it, opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He silently thanked the heavens that there was nobody around to see him in such a state.

The photograph was of medium size: it had a high-quality feel, even to a profane like Toudou, but it wasn’t the likely expensiveness of the camera that made Toudou’s heart pound wildly and his mouth go dry.

It was the casual way Makishima’s white, naked body was curled on what looked like a pristine mattress, a cotton sheet tangled around him more out of casualty than modesty. It was the actual length of those limbs, bent gracefully and yet slightly out of pose, probably caught on film during a natural shift in position. It was the wildness of that green hair, red sticking out like lightning in the untamed mane, tousled, as only hours spent not sleeping on a bed could do. It was the intricate pattern drawn on Makishima’s back by the thin, red rope, a peculiar shibari in the shape of a spider’s web. It was the black spider tattooed at the back of Makshima’s neck, ironically complementing the rope design. It was the moles that dotted every inch of skin. It was those half-lidded eyes and playful smile, the confident yet comfortable posture Makishima was keeping: it suggested trust in whoever was taking the picture; it spoke of no awkwardness, just… relaxation. And fun. Toudou felt uneasy: first, because it seemed a bit like he was intruding a private moment and second, because the photograph, no matter what, looked a bit too professional to have been meant as merely private. The colour scheme, the angle, the composition, the actual format and quality of the print, the central role of the rope, much like a product on display, much like an advertisement

Toudou eyed the bag at his side, felt the weight of the brand new catalogue inside it and swallowed. All of a sudden, he wasn’t that eager to scroll through it.

*

Mere seconds later, he heard clothes rustle in the adjacent booth and was quick enough to hide the picture once more before his sister opened the curtain and stared at him with a raised brow. For someone currently clad in nothing but an electric blue corset with matching panties and a… uh… satin shrug? (what was even the point of wearing that kind of elaborate thing –and without a back, mind you- over lingerie?! What kind of mind could even conceive it!?), she made a very impressive, authoritarian figure. The colour (and the shower of milky pearls) of the garments suited her a lot.

-          What are you doing sitting here by yourself, Hachi?

-          N-Nothing?

-          Well, it’s a pity. Why don’t you try something yourself?

-          There’s nothing here for me.

-          Yes, there is. Everything inside this room comes in male and female size and, more importantly, in both cuts.

-          WHAT?!

-          Do you think you could fit that junk of yours in a pair of panties designed for vaginas and still be comfortable?

-          Hana, this conversation has degenerated…

-          Go have a look instead of pouting here like a log! There are symbols and size-charts all around: you could hunt down the counterpart of the one I’m wearing! I think it’s the best I’ve tried so far, this colour really flatters my complexion and beauty the most. Hence, it would work great on you too! We could match!

-          I-I’m not really in the mood for …panties, right now.

She turned serious.

-          Is there something wrong, Hachi? Does this place really upset you so much?

“It’s not the place”, Toudou thought, “more like the fact that the object of my sudden affection seems to be a part-time model for bondage articles that, apparently, really loves his job and co-workers”… but he couldn’t tell Hana that.

She looked honestly worried, maybe a little guilty too. He had no right to spoil her afternoon, as well.

-          I think I will check out the toys section again. Oh, and this set does indeed suit you a lot, sis. Though I would give a chance to the black one with crystals and to the purple one with feathers.

-          I love the way you reason, Hachi! What about the white one?

-          The lace is gorgeous on that one. Perfect for the wedding…

-          …and what comes after! Ahah!

Toudou got up, but Hana called after him.

-          Ohi, Hachi! If you see anything you like, just pick it. I’m buying it for you, as a thanks!

He gave her a soft smile, because Hana was a hurricane, but a kind and considerate one.

-          Thank you, sis.

*

The moment he crouched and slipped the photograph back where he had found it (with a pang of annoyance, but no, he didn’t have the courage to hand it to the shop assistant, look him in the eye and practically admit that he had appreciated it far too much), his phone went off loudly. Toudou jumped, hid the picture under the rack with haste, worrying about the chance of someone finding his fingerprints on its surface and police tracking him down. Finally, he glanced at the flashing screen as if it was a bomb.

It was Arakita.

It felt at the same time salvation and damnation. Toudou picked up and didn’t bother with greetings.

-          You have no idea of what just happened to me.

-          I don’t care. And shouldn’t it be my line? I’m the one that called.

Toudou looked around. He was still too close to his sister to speak out loud, but he felt uncomfortable discussing things in the open: thus, he moved into a secluded corner and pressed his face into a rack of garterbelts.

-          The guy from the shop.  Think he’s into bondage.

-          Toudou, what’s gotten into you?!

Toudou ignored him and wrapped himself in the heavy velvet curtain, instead. The cocoon felt extremely safe, especially when he muffled an exasperated scream.

-          WHAT DO I DO!?

-          What are you even talking about?!

-          Look, there was a bit of a commotion in the clothes room and this pic came out and-

-          Wait a second, you’ve actually gone back?!

-          …yeah, I’m kinda still here, actually.

-          And you didn’t tell us anything!?

-          Hana might have dragged me here in a rush…

-          How fucked up in the head do you have to be to bring your sister to a sex shop!?

-          It’s not like that! She’s a monster! I’m the victim here, you have no idea! And could you please deal with the topic at hand, like: how am I supposed to interact with someone that apparently loves to be tied up with ropes in his free time???

-          Can I ask you, and please calm down, how you acquired such fundamental information?

-          It’s a bit of a long story involving new catalogues and secret promotional material…

-          Does he know that you know?

-          He’s not here today, I think I missed his shift.

-          Flee the scene, Toudou. Abort mission, abort everything, we need to get our facts straight, first!

-          I can’t flee the scene, Hana is still in the changing rooms!

Arakita cussed loudly on the other end.

-          Go scroll the toy aisles, then. Put on that poker face of yours and take a look at the bondage section. You know, just to brace yourself for our future chats. Try to get acquainted with the basics.

-          I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces until I was nine, how can I get prepared for this!?

-          Toudou, you’re not tying anyone up in the near future. Anyone that staid in your company for more than two hours would know better than to trust you near any form of twine. Now, please, take your head out of your ass and think, instead of going on a tangent and panicking.

-          I think I’m on the verge of hyperventilating. I played it cool with Hana but I can’t hold it anymore.

-          Cut the melodramatic crap and listen to me, you fucktard! Your guy is not there. You’re on top: you know something more about him, you can decide if it’s still worth it, you are in the perfect place to wrap your head around the matter. Call the other shop assistant, get fucking informed about that kinky stuff without freaking out and then decide if you’d like to give it a go with greenie-bean. For fuck’s sake, it’s not like he has already ‘cuffed you to the bedframe!

-          …who are you? What have you done to my Arakita?

-          Fuck off, bugger.

The line went off and Toudou sighed, his mind clearing.

He disentangled himself from the curtain and headed for the hall, thinking about Arakita’s words.

Alright, Makishima really seemed as kinky as his image suggested. The atmosphere surrounding him was a bit intimidating, but also… alluring, in a sense. Truth to be told, the novelty and boldness of the photograph had taken Toudou by surprise, yes, but he couldn’t deny that, for one that was presumably so out-of-his-depth, he had spent far too much time ogling the endless expanse of white skin in the picture. Admiring the way light danced on those toned, defined muscles, wondering how those moles would have felt under his fingert- Shit. He was in deep.

And it didn’t even make sense, because it wasn’t like he couldn’t find his fair share of pretty, unproblematic lovers. It wasn’t like he couldn’t meet attractive people regularly and hook up with them. And yet there he was, all worked up over a stranger he had met once, a guy he had no ties with, one that, visually speaking, didn’t meet any of Toudou’s standards and that, apparently, was anything but sexual compatible with him.

But he had this… aura around him that had lured Toudou in like a fly into a spider’s trap and oh, wasn’t the metaphor so ironically fitting?

It was hard to explain, but so very simple at the same time: it had been very long since the last time Toudou had felt so thrilled about someone. The reaction his body was having held a raw impulsiveness that Toudou had almost forgotten, and it was a bit like going back to his teen years, when his dick had had a will of its own and his mind spent most of the time keeping it in check. But Toudou had always been a romantic at heart, and the constant longing, the shivers that a mere flip of his crush’s hair could cause, the goosebumps from the sight of them, the butterflies in his stomach at the sound of their voice… all of that had been sweet, in a sense. It had made him feel more alive and in tune with himself than most of the sex he had had in the following years.

This unexpected anxiety, this flush and restlessness stemming from thoughts of a guy he didn’t even know yet, brought him back to a time he remembered fondly, when love was a game he had no idea how to play and everything was new and exciting. When he walked on egg-shells all day every day because what if I say the wrong thing, what if they hate this headband it’s my favourite, what if it turns out they are not into guys, what do you even do after you confess and get together. When he discovered new things about himself every passing day, testing his body and getting acquainted with it, sorting out his feelings and finding a precarious balance one night, only to turn it upside down the following morning. It had been crazy, tiring and stressful. It had also been rousing, fulfilling and fun. And in the name of his old, teenage self, Toudou took a deep breath and decided that yes, perhaps times were right to go back playing chase. Perhaps it was time for another round, time to go back to the origins and rediscover the rules of the game from scrap, maybe challenge himself and write some new ones.

Things had stalled long enough in the past months, and if it took a mysterious green spider with a penchant for hard-core sex to spice them up a little and take Toudou out of his romantic and sexual apathy, so be it.

The harder the climb, the better the view from the peak.

*

The phone started ringing in his pocket again and Toudou fished it out with a slight frown. Arakita’s name was flashing him again from the screen and Toudou felt a mall smile tug at his lips, that time. He accepted the call without thinking too much about it, bursting with newly found resolve. Before he could open his mouth to share the enlightening development, though, Arakita’s angriest roar bit his ear off.

-          WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING ANSWERING MY CALL, MAKING IT ALL ABOUT YOU AND FUCKING HANGING UP ON ME WITHOUT LISTENING TO WHAT I HAD TO SAY!?

-          Technically, it was you who hung up on me. Anyway, I thought about it seriously and-

-          SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! I’M CALLING FOR A REASON!

Toudou strolled leisurely into the toy section, keeping the phone far from his ear and looking around with little to no interest, until he found a shelf filled with the most colourful and varied selection of lubricants and condoms he had ever seen. A tad bit curious (and at ease, since those were things he had plenty of experience with), he listened to Arakita’s outburst while inspecting the different types available and weighing his options.

-          -ELF-ASSORBED, CONCEITED PRICK!

-          Do you think I should try tropical flavoured lube? I like mango.

-          PAY ATTENTION TO ME!

-          Or maybe plain pineapple is better. I kinda enjoy pineapple, and they say it does wonders to your sp-

-          WE’RE BRINGING SASHA OVER TONIGHT! Get ready.

Toudou froze, eyes widened in sheer panic. The package of neon-coloured condoms fell from his grasp and hit the carpeted floor without making a sound.

-          No.

-          Yes. Yuuto just called to say he’s on his way for an impromptu visit. Gonna crash at our place tonight and leave tomorrow after lunch. You have to keep Sasha.

-          Why?!

He swore he could hear Arakita rolling his eyes to the phone.

-          We’ve been over this: he’s allergic.

Sasha was Shinkai and Arakita’s cat. A menacing, furry, ugly thing if Toudou ever saw one. Her story was as cliché as it could have been: they had found her in a dark alley on a rainy day, a pitiful, abandoned kitten with ticks as big as she was. Her chance of survival had been close to none and they had obviously made it their personal mission to turn the tables on that. Shinkai had brought her to the vet clinic he was doing his internship at, at the time, and they had patched her up. When it was time to find her a proper home, Arakita had refused to let her go. Actually, the official version was that Shinkai had almost cried at the thought of her leaving, thus Arakita had ever so graciously made the sacrifice of indulging his over-sensitive boyfriend. They never spoke of the cat-bed and litter box that had mysteriously appeared in their home long before the kitten had been released from the clinic (and that Shinkai swore he had never purchased).

A year later, the beast was the outright queen of the house (it seemed legit, Shinkai’s bunny had always been the princess, after all): a huge, grey monster that in Toudou’s opinion weighted more than a fat pup and that blatantly hated him. So much that, during his last visit to Shinkai and Arakita’s flat, they’d had to lock her in their bedroom. Arakita said she only wanted to play. Toudou knew that Sasha was the spawn of the devil and that the only thing she sought from life was to gouge Toudou’s eyes out and wear them with pride around her thick neck. At least, that’s what he had learned from the one and only night they has spent together in Toudou’s apartment, month prior, when not only Yuuto had wanted to visit his older brother so badly, but he had also had the nerve to announce that he’d become allergic to cats.

-          I am, too.

-          No, dumbass, you’re not. Come on, it’s only for a night.

-          I have no space for her at my place.

-          You have plenty of space for a cat, at your place. You live alone.

-          She’ll want to sleep with me!

-          She’s a pretty cuddly one, yes, but she’s discreet.

-          I don’t care if she’s discreet, I don’t want her in my bed again!

-          If the problem is the hair, she’s not shedding any at the moment, and Shinkai is going to brush her thoroughly before bringing her over anyway.

-          Her hair is fine! Don’t you remember the morning after, last time? She scratched me so bad she drew blood! I sported the signs for weeks!

-          She’s a playful lady that doesn’t like to be ignored or locked out of bedrooms.

-          She’s a wild beast and I’m not in the mood to deal with her, right now.

-          I think you just need the proper toy to distract her with.

-          What do you mean with “I need the proper toy”?

-          A scratching post, for example. She could tire herself with it and ignore you. I’d bring ours over with the litter box and everything, but she broke it a couple of days ago.

-          Told you she’s insatiable…

-          Ohi, I’ll be in a hurry tonight, so I can’t get a new one. Could you do me a favour and buy one for me? There should be a pet shop not far from where you are: I’ll pay you back when I bring her over.

-          I should be the one buying it?

-          I’ll send you a picture, if you want. Please, Toudou, I think it might help. And I really, really can’t keep her here tonight…

-          Alright. Since I’m already here I’ll get her that as a present. Pray that it puts her in a good mood.

-          Thank you. I’ll bring everything necessary around six.

-          Ohi! I haven’t accepted yet!

-          You owe me for spoiling me the latest episode of my drama!

Truth to be told, Toudou kind of did.

-          Okay, I’ll take care of Sasha. But put a good word for me, will you.

*

He hung up and sighed loudly, picking up the fallen condoms and putting them back on the shelf. Mumbling curses to himself, Toudou rubbed his forehead and turned around: above the aisles, his eyes were caught by the word bondage painted on the opposite wall. Memories of the picture resurfaced at full force and he swallowed uncomfortably: it was time to get through with it. Before the last turn, his phone ringed once, briefly, and he unlocked the screen to look at the message without stopping. It was a mail from Arakita with two pictures attached: the first was of a brand new scratching post, the other showed Sasha sitting proudly over what was left of the poor item. “Show these to the cashier, he’ll know what to do”, Arakita had added. Toudou gritted his teeth. If he managed to keep his skin (and house) intact through the night he would have called himself lucky.

-          As if one of these was enough to restrain her!

-          …ehm, excuse me, do you need help?

Toudou stilled, stunned on the spot while his blood stop flowing and colour drained from his face. Eyes wide and unblinking, mouth reflexively pulled up into a dashing smile, he turned towards the source of the voice, wishing with all his might he had heard incorrectly.

He hadn’t. All of a sudden, he felt like crying again.

Crouched at his feet, so close Toudou had almost tripped over him, holding a file and a pen, surrounded by ropes of different lengths, thickness and colours, was Makishima, in all his iridescent glory.

*

Toudou was aware that he was staring at Makishima in a very impolite way, but every time he closed his eyelids to blink, his traitorous mind kept going back to the ominous photograph and images of a very seductive, very naked Makishima overlapped with the original one every two seconds.

-          A-Actually…

Makishima got up in a fluid motion and moved to the side for an instant, just to push a precariously balanced box back into place. He wore his hair in a ponytail, that day, higher than the last time, which meant that Toudou had an unobstructed view of his white, long neck. The tiny legs of an inky spider poke out of the collar of his shirt and Toudou stopped thinking altogether. Makishima faced him fully, then, awkwardly adjusting his limbs, as if not knowing where to put them, exactly. He settled for a loose hold on his left arm and tilted his head to the side.

-          Yes?

Toudou couldn’t help looking at him and was at a loss. There was no mistaking the sudden heat that rose to his face and the loud thumping of his heart. He was hopelessly smitten with this guy, and the fresh memories of Makishima’s bare body, of ropes against it, ropes like the ones at their feet, hugging it, did nothing to help with his infatuation. Nor his embarrassment.

Then again… this was a chance, wasn’t it? Makishima enjoyed that kind of thing and here they were, in the bondage section of the shop surrounded by… packages Toudou wasn’t so keen into asking about, but he had to, if he wanted to make some kind of progress. If he wanted to keep up and really throw himself into that new adventure. If he wanted to prove a point to himself and Makishima, convincing both of them that he was ready for this.

He smiled wide, although a bit shyly, and ran a hand through his hair.

-          Can you recommend me a good bondage set?

*

Makishima’s brain had stopped functioning the moment he had heard that voice echoing through the shop. He had had no intention to eavesdrop the man’s conversation of the phone but, on the other hand, he was talking freely and Makishima had an inventory to finish, so he couldn’t have avoided it, either. When he had realized just what exactly the headband guy was talking about, he had wanted to dig himself a hole right there and die, but apparently that wasn’t a practical option. Hence, he had curled up in himself and wished with all his might that the man walked away in the opposite direction, but the voice had only grown closer. He had done nothing to avoid being stomped over by the man, so desperate he was to create whatever diversion he needed to flee the scene without actually looking like he was doing that, but it had been for naught as well. And then it had been too late.

His customer had looked straight at him and smiled. People were not supposed to be that attractive. Hair wasn’t supposed to shine like that. Teeth weren’t supposed to stay that white. And he was familiar with that particular cologne, and it had never smelt so… distracting, on other people!

Hence, it took a while for the handsome man’s words to sink in, but at last, they did.
He had come with a woman named Hana (so Ren had said) and spent a long time going over lingerie with her.
He was going to spend the night with a girl named Sasha that was apparently so wild.
He was to gift her a new toy to keep her at bay and happy.

Oh, god.

*

Makishima stared back at him for a long time, eyes slightly narrowed, and Toudou felt like he was being studied. Then, Makishima gave a short sigh and a curt nod and the air around him seemed to change: his posture relaxed slightly and his face set into less tense lines. Toudou thought it suited him. Then, Makishima started speaking.

-          Forgive my bluntness, but I need to ask in order to do your best interest: have you, or you partner, ever engaged into this kind of activity?

“Not at all, but I could get used to the sight of you doing it in my bed.”

-          I admit that I am no… expert. More like… curious? There are, well, unexpected circumstances that have made me… interested into this… world.

Makishima nodded, the hint of a shadow across his features.

-          Very well. We have all kinds of items and equipment here, as you can see. Single articles that can be purchased separately and coordinated kits. For the more visual aspect of the thing, I’d recommend you a trip to the clothes section, we have recently expanded our line to include innovative colours and materials.

Toudou nodded.

-          Given the situation, I feel like recommending a basic set like the ones you can see on the wall behind you: they come in different price ranges, but are not very expensive, all in all. Here, I’ll open the demonstrative one to show you…

-          No, really, it’s not necessary!

Toudou had stuttered, red to the tips of his ears. Makishima raised a brow at him, already working open the display box, and smiled reassuringly. Toudou saw it as predatory, though.

-          It is, trust me. They all come with detailed and illustrated instructions, but we believe in informing our customers thoroughly before letting them buy something that has the potential to harm them.

-          …harm?

Makishima turned fully towards him with a bunch of stuff slung casually over his arm.

-          Of course. You don’t goof around with these things: wrong comprehension of the designated use of a toy, or even a misunderstanding between the parts involved can lead to difficult situations, both physically and psychologically. If I hadn’t meticulously prepared myself, my first experiences with these babies here would have been pretty traumatic.

Toudou laughed. Nervously. Makishima picked up a long, silky looking piece of cloth from his forearm.

-          So, this is our basic line. What I’m showing you is a blindfold. Pleasurable to the touch and comfortable to wear, though padded enough to ensure total blindness. The cloth is deliberately slippery, not only to enhance the physical experience of wearing it, but to make it easier to slip it off and untie it as well, if necessary. Losing your sight is a thrilling experience in the right context, but it can also be off-putting, if not downright scary. This makes it less constricting.

Toudou nodded, enraptured. Just… how many times had Makishima doine it, to be able to describe it so naturally?

-          Then we have the restraints: these are the infamous handcuffs. Personally, I find them a bit uncomfortable, but the padding (obviously removable) minimizes the feeling, not to mention that some people actively seek for that kind of sensation – you might find out that you enjoy them and the clinking of the metal chains. They are durable and strong, and by all means not a toy: we have had issues with the past models, because in the name of safety they broke open on their own too easily for our customers’ liking. So, we strengthened them: they’re obviously not at the level of those used from officers, but they won’t come off just because you tug on them a bit too harder. They come with several copies of their keys but again, I remind you to be extra careful with them.

Toudou swallowed, not really knowing what to say. Makishima went on with a little glint in his eyes.

-          These are cuffs, a personal favourite of mine. They go around your wrists and there are matching ones for the ankles. They are designed to fit every circumference and can be tightened as desired by working on these little belts and strings here, see? They come with cords of their own that have to be slipped in this metal ring here, while the loose end can be tied to whatever you want, really. You can attach them to the bedframe, but also link together wrists and ankles, or just give in to your imagination. They are padded, comfortable and don’t leave signs, but they also have a strong hold, so you don’t have to worry about them coming loose at the worst moment.

…a personal favourite of his?!

-          Then, we have bonus items that vary in relation to the kit chosen: this one I picked had a small whip, more for teasing that actual pain, don’t worry; others have a gag-ball, or a collar. Now that I look at them carefully, I think the collar got a place as a standard item, yep, there it is, in fact. That has more an aesthetic value than anything: it stays in place with hook-and-loop fasteners in three standards measure and it comes loose easily. The, forgive my expression, serious ones are available for independent purchase, but I’d leave those for consummate users.

Toudou couldn’t stop his tongue on time.

-          ...no ropes?

Makishima shook his head and picked up a thin rope from the floor, red as the ones that still haunted Toudou’s brain.

-          Not for beginners. Ropes need a more… experienced touch. You are free to approach this world as you deem fit, of course, but I think that if bondage was your starting idea, then plain ropes might not be the best pick. In my opinion, taking one small step at a time and at our own terms is always the best way to reach a peak.

What a… peculiar choice of words.

-          Are they… fun? Ropes, I mean.

Makishima looked at the string in his hands with peculiar fondness.

-          They are lots of fun. But they can also be a bit… too much, all of a sudden.

-          I see.

-          I showed you the demonstrative kit, that comes in a plain, light colour, but as you can see we have lots of eye-catching patterns and colour combinations.

-          I… I’ll think about it, then. Thank you.

-          You’re welcome. Just call me if you need anything else, I’ll be right here sorting boxes out.

Toudou nodded and let him go, butterflies fluttering pleasantly on his stomach. Keeping Makishima in his peripheral vision, Toudou stood in front of the basic bondage kits for several minutes, occasionally picking one and checking the prize, or mildly toying with the sample items Makishima had showed him. It had been merely a professional conversation, yes, but he had managed to not make a fool of himself too much and things seemed to have gone… well. He hadn’t missed Makishima’s knowing smile as he chanted the pros and cons of cuffs and gag-balls, but he had also looked genuinely supporting, more than condescending towards a beginner. It was his job, obviously, though Toudou wanted to believe it was a positive sign as well. Motivated and slightly intoxicated by Makishima’s proximity, his eyes fell to a package at the very back of the shelf: it was a set like the ones he had been browsing until that moment, but at the same time it was something else entirely. The cloth was black and looked extremely soft to the touch, but it was embroidered with a bright red, silky thread that drew a very intricate pattern all over it, countless curls and swirls that chased each other endlessly. Toudou took the package in hand and glanced to the side, just as Makishima tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. A lock of hair that was as red and curly as the lines of thread on the blindfold, cuffs and collar Toudou was holding. All of a sudden, Toudou found himself imagining things he shouldn’t have. Like the way Makishima’s hair would have fallen over his blindfolded face. Or how green would have mingled with pitch black and flashy red against, falling over white skin, such a contrast with Toudou’s dark sheets... Or the way Makishima’s limbs might have looked, so long and taut, if spread over Toudou’s mattress and loosely fixed above his head, chest rising up and down quickly, mouth opening to accommodate the slight paint…

Makishima sensed his stare and turned towards him. Toudou was not quick enough to compose himself. Makishima noticed the package he was holding and went back to his business. Toudou didn’t miss the little smile on his lips, softer than before.Feeling like he couldn’t back out at that moment, Toudou checked the price tag.

Oh.

Well, Hana had said he could pick what he wanted…

Speaking of the devil, just when Toudou had slipped the box into the basket, his sister’s suave tones echoed in the shop.

-          Hachi! You there?

-          Coming!

*

He flapped open the velvet curtain and spotted Hana, already coming towards him from the dressing rooms, fully clothed and holding onto her phone. When he was at arm’s reach, she handed him her own basket (so full of clothes they were actually sticking out) and a credit card.

-          I have to take this call, it’s important. Can you please pay for everything while I get this outside?

-          Sure, go ahead.

-          Thanks. Oh, don’t forget to count your things as well! My treat, as promised!

They exited the room together and Hana rushed outside while Toudou walked to the counter. Makishima was nowhere to be seen again. He appeared from the big arch after several moments and Toudou had the pleasure to watch him trot to the cash register with calculated steps. Makishima took his baskets with ease and emptied them carefully on the lower counter. His eyes widened. Toudou groaned, embarrassed.

-          Oh my god, she went all out again, didn’t she?

Makishima positively chuckled at that and looked strangely proud.

-          Kuha! I’m not in the position to complain, though!

Toudou laughed lightly at the retort and handed him the card.

-          No, I guess you’re not. Ehm… can you pack my box on its own? Please?

He really couldn’t deal with his sister’s taunts after seeing him buy a bondage set. He wouldn’t have come out alive. And for some reason, he felt like sharing the thought.

-          You know, I’d prefer she didn’t see that… right now…

Makishima deflated a bit at that, smile disappearing.

-          Oh. Ehr… sure. Of course.

When the transaction was complete, Makishima handed him the sealed bags. Predictably, Hana’s was considerably bigger than his own. Suddenly, Makishima scratched his cheek with a bony finger.

-          I… uhm… gave you a 10% discount. You know, the promotion from last time…

-          What? Oh… yeah! Wait! I’ll give you back the card an-

-          N-No! It’s fine. I mean… keep it. Considering your current purchase, I should actually give you another so… keep that. And here’s a new one. It’s okay.

-          Really?

Makishima nodded, looking to the side.

-          Thank you, Maki-chan!

Makishima turned to face him so fast his hair flew around, eyes wide and cheeks red, lips slightly parted but no words coming out. Toudou realized too late what he had said, as usual, and stared back, eyes equally wide and mouth set into a thin, trembling line. Before he could lose his dignity completely, he snatched the bags off the counter and sprinted out of the shop much like ha had done the previous time, throwing a rushed ‘see you’ behind.

Makishima kept looking at the closed door even after the bell had stopped jingling, hand raised in a little wave.

-          H-Have a nice day… Hachi?

*

As usual when the weekend approached, late afternoon and evening got hectic and, as soon as the clock signed eight thirty and the last customer walked out the door, Ren literally threw himself at it and locked it with finality. Then, he offered to tide up and sent Yuusuke home first, to start dinner in the meantime.

Yuusuke agreed and marched out with a murmured word of thanks.

The first thing Ren did once he was completely alone in the shop was run into the clothes section and scan every single inch of it thoroughly, included the spaces under the carpets and behind the armchairs.

And at least he found it: the photograph that had escaped their private folder and got missing in the fall, hours prior. He had noticed his absence: Yuusuke would have flailed him alive for leaving it around, where people could see. Luckily, it had slipped under the racks. Sighing in relief, Ren tucked the picture away safely and attempted to sort out some of the mess left behind the last clients: Yuusuke had already taken care of the register, and he was feeling pretty tired himself; there was no point in doing a sloppy job: he made sure the place looked presentable, wrote a list of all the chores left for the following morning, grabbed his keys and set up all the alarms, closing the shop for the night.

It was nice, living in the apartment right above their business. Sure, the building was old, without elevator, and their flat was on the seventh floor, but all in all Ren preferred to face those horrible stairs than jumping on a train packed with people. Yuusuke definitely did, too.

Their family owned two of the apartments in the complex (plus the two on ground floor that they had turned into Ren’s*Flower): they were placed on opposite sides of the wide corridor and mirrored each other. The original plan had been for the brothers to take one each, but Ren’s girlfriend was currently in London, running their main brand in Ren’s absence, and things were still wobbly and temporary on their side. So, the Makishimas had decided to use one of the apartments as a storage room and main base for the newborn Ren’s*Flower, while living together in the other. Ren already spent all his waking hours in the shop or the impromptu office: there was a limit to the amount of dedication a man could pour into his job, he needed to sleep elsewhere.

That night, he opened the door of their shared flat to find Yuusuke already sitting at the square table, hair loose over his back, elbow on the flat surface and face in his palm, twirling noodles in a paper cup with an absent-minded frown. Nevertheless, he spoke first.

-          Sorry for the meagre meal: we ran out of everything edible and forgot to shop for groceries. There’s rice boiling, though. Might as well put everything together.

-          No take-out?

-          Didn’t really feel like it. Would you like some?

-          Nah, it’s fine… it’s not the worst we have had through the years.

-          Are you talking about the time we survived on caffeine and packed sugar for a week, or the one we dipped cereals into wine by mistake but ate it all the same, we were so famished and mentally exhausted?

-          Either way, there were deadlines approaching or a fashion week running. I would have killed for instant noodles, back then.

Yuusuke chuckled and got up to fill two bowls with plain rice and to pour boiling water over Ren’s cup of pasta. He put everything on the table and sat down with a groan, massaging his scalp. Ponytails that high were practical, but holy shit did they hurt his head…

They ate in silence for a while, too hungry to care about anything but their food. Yet, Yuusuke could feel Ren’s eyes on his downturned face. And he knew exactly the reason behind that stare.

-          Oh, alright, say it already!

Ren slurped loudly on a last spoonful of noodles and made a show of wondering what Yuusuke was talking about. Yuusuke threw him a piece of carrot.

-          Don’t toy with the food, Yuusuke!

-          Don’t toy with me, Ren!

-          I swear you’re so picky! Anyway…

Yuusuke rolled his eyes.

-          …he’s hot! Let’s face it, the headband is lame as fuck, but by god, isn’t he a looker! I didn’t expect you to have such fine taste-

-          Ohi!

-          …he’s a very handsome young man! And he seemed nice, too.

-          …what did you do?

-          Nothing! Ouch! I swear I did nothing! I had a bit of an accident with the carpet and he helped me, so we exchanged a few words, that’s all!

-          …and???

-          And nothing. He was nice. You know, polite. Mannered. Easy-going. I can see why you got all worked up over him.

Yuusuke mumbled something under his breath. Ren frowned.

-          What was it?

Yuusuke tucked a lock of hair behind his ear and looked at a corner of the table.

-          I said “me and at least another couple of girls”…

Ren took his noodle cup with both hands and blew at the steaming liquid inside.

-          Well, I won’t lie and say he was alone, earlier. It looked like he was escorting that Hana-girl, she called him with a pet-name and was trying on many pieces from our new collection.

-          I know. He paid for all her clothes.

Ren sighed. Yuusuke brought his knees up and toyed with his hair.

-          And then we… ran into each other in the bondage aisle. He was… looking for a toy to “tame a wild beast” that, last time, “scratched him until she drew blood”. I have a feeling it wasn’t the same girl that came with him.

-          Did he tell you all of this.

-          No, I overheard his conversation on the phone. It was an accident.

Ren  sipped at the broth, thoughtful. They hadn’t known anything about that man when he had walked in the first time, just made assumptions based on his choice of sex-toy: it didn’t come as a surprise that they might have been wrong all along and that Yuusuke’s single, gay pursuer was, in reality, just a very friendly and very active heterosexual man with his hands full, so to speak.

Still, it had been Ren to feed Yuusuke’s hope and fill his head with wrong ideas, so he felt a bit responsible for the sad, disappointed look on his brother’s face.  In all honesty, Yuusuke had never been to crush on unknown men so easily: it must have felt exciting (confusing, but exciting), to experience that peculiar feeling after a long time. And it must have felt quite bad to see all the castles crumbling down before they even had the chance to become a real possibility. Most of the people wouldn’t have pined after a stranger whose sexuality and availability they had never been sure of, but most of the people were not twenty-three years old Yuusuke, awkward to the bone and so depressingly unlucky with relationships since, like, forever.

-          Ehi.

-          Mh?

-          I’m sorry it turned out like this. He looked like a cool guy.

-          Yeah.

Ren moved the chair back, but Yuusuke was quicker.

-          Stay. Let me take care of the dishes.

-          Alright. Thank you. I’ll just fix some papers in the office, then.

-          Okay.

-          Ah! Don’t lock yourself in your room, once you’re done. There’s a couple of things I’d like to show you.

Yuusuke nodded.

-          …are you sure there’s nothing edible left? At all? No sweets at all? Not even a single biscuit?

-          Nope. You ate the last ones yesterday mornings and I finished the jam today. We’ll have to have breakfast at Tadokorocchi’s tomorrow.

-          Who cares about tomorrow, I wanted dessert tonight.

Yuusuke threw him the wet sponge. Ren went down without a fight.

*

Half an hour later, Ren went back to their apartment holding two small paper cups of hot chocolate and found Yuusuke sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table, browsing an old magazine without interest.

-          Still sulking over Yurika’s choice of accessorizes at the last red carpet?

-          Accessorizes and colour palette.

-          She seems fond of our casual wear, though. Kyoko said she’s been trying to get in touch with us for a tailored gown.

-          Nice. Who’s gonna take care of her?

-          I think Lukas is more on her wavelength, since he’s the least… eccentric of the lot?

-          Don’t look at me, I don’t know what you mean. Oh, I can’t believe you!

Ren had placed a cup in front of him and was taking tentative sips from his own.

-          What? We never use that machine! It’s a waste!

-          You went to the office to get yourself cheap hot chocolate from the direction’s machine?

-          It’s going to expire if we don’t drink it. And I am the direction, thank you very much.

Yuusuke grimaced and took the beverage.

-          Such a sweet tooth…

-          I’m not exactly hearing you refusing that, babe.

-          Shut up.

Yuusuke blew on the steaming cup to cool the drink a bit while Ren took a folder from under his arm, opening it on the table. It was full of photographs. Yuusuke raised a brow.

-          They arrived today with all the other stuff: Brian is making space for the kid, so he’s throwing away lots of boxes. Still, he liked these prints too much to dump them with the rest and sent them to us. It was nice of him.

-          Don’t we already have them?

-          Nope. We have the photobook and a couple of signed originals: these are the ones that didn’t make it to the final stage. Look – he said picking up the picture that he’d just rescued from under the rack – this was taken right after the one he used for the exhibition.

-          Oh my god, I remember it! He wouldn’t shut up about what a perfect shot he had just got, how it looked better than he imagined and what a great work I had done.

-          Nah, that last comment was from me. I was very proud of you. That photograph made him won the critique’s prize.

-          That and the other twenty-four that made up the project.

-          Yeah, but after all these years people mostly remember and mention your shot and Tiana’s.

-          Poor Tiana. She got the gag-ball that time.

-          And made a huge modelling career out of it.

-          She’s in the States now, isn’t she?

-          Mh. …you know, I think this is a good picture too. Though in a different way.

-          Why does it have to look like I’m naked?

-          You weren’t?

-          No! It would have been too embarrassing!

They rummaged in the thick folder light-heartedly, taking out picture after picture and commenting on every one. They were mostly shots of Yuusuke in various outfits and state of undress, because Brian had been Ren’s classmate and brother-in-arms all through university and at the very first steps of their careers as a photographer and a fashion designer, respectively. They had put each other’s talent at good use and helped each other a lot with their respective projects: when Yuusuke had landed in London, he had been thrown into that madness as well, not that he had regretted it.

The last pictures were wider and stood out a lot. They were meant to, since a bigger, filtered, company-approved version of them had appeared everywhere in London and on the net when they had launched Ren’s*Flower. Hadn’t it been for the hair, it would have been hard (if not impossible) to recognize Yuusuke in the triumph of feathers, flowers, lace and jewels that literally built the flamboyant dress, shoes, accessorizes he had been squeezed in; that were tangles in his elaborate tresses; that matched the heavy make-up on his face. Ren himself had had trouble believing that the… creature walking out of the dress room that morning was his brother. The blush and awkwardness had betrayed him, but by the end of the photo-shoot, those had vanished as well, and Ren had ended up crying in happiness, he was so proud, and running on stage to pull Yuusuke aside and hug him in earnest. There had been a string of ‘thank you’ and ‘it was perfect’ and ‘we’re so gonna make it’ coming out of his lips, and Brian had managed to immortalize that exact moment, too: it was a beautiful photograph of the two brothers, honestly speaking. They should have put that into their favourite album. Ren stared at it fondly and turned it around for Yuusuke to see, before passing to the next one, coming from the same batch. It was a close-up of Yuusuke’s face, eyes sparkling under the fake lights and in the purple, black blue and petrol-green make-up. Head tilted up with confidence, a strong expression on his enhanced features: they had favoured another pose, in the end, but this picture still held a great appeal too, in Ren’s opinion. Perhaps he was biased because he could actually see Yuusuke behind that particular grin and, though not suited for commercials, it was endearing to him.

But all that reminiscing over old photos for their first ad campaign brought up equally old questions.

-          Yuusuke, how-

-          Ren, no. We talked about this a lot.

-          I know. I just think it’s a waste.

-          I’ve told you. I didn’t mind helping you out in London when we couldn’t afford any real models for Ren’s Design – and I didn’t mind taking part in Brian’s themed projects in exchange for his free work for us. I certainly didn’t mind doing… that, for the launch. I admit I didn’t particularly liked the attention, but London was London: everyone at school did this kind of stuff, one way or the other, and nobody in the streets noticed me anyway but… I work here, Ren. I can’t serve customers and have these posters all around the place. People would know, they would talk, they…

-          Hush. It’s fine.

-          But you want to put them up and you’re right! You’d like to have another campaign like that and you’re right! And I’m letting you down.

-          No, you’re not.

Yuusuke gave a mirthless, mocking scoff. Ren straightened his back.

-          Yuu, you know my stance on the matter. You are this brand. I started drawing clothes with you in mind and, even if at this point in my career I have discovered several other muses, you are still the one that can pull off my outfits and represent my ideal images of them best. Think of the first catalogue we produced, the one you modelled almost all by yourself: those shots are still the perfect synthesis of everything Ren’s Design is and was meant to be. And this – he placed a hand over the pictures – this is you as well. You are Ren’s*Flower too: you are its colours, its patterns, its exceptional designs and its unique sense of materials and beauty. We have come so far exactly because I couldn’t restrain you in a single line of clothes, so I just don’t want you to restrain yourself for fear of… exposition?

Yuusuke hugged his knees.

-          I like drawing clothes, Ren. And I love creating lingerie. But I don’t want to walk to work every morning and see those ass huge posters of myself hung on every wall and have the customers put two and two together and start asking questions.

-          Would it be different, if you were only part of the creative process?

-          You mean if I could lock myself up in my study all day and worry about nothing but drawing, sewing, padding and coordinating?

-          Yes.

-          …maybe.

-          It wouldn’t be much different from London, in that case.

-          Yeah… it wouldn’t.

-          Let’s make this business strong, then, so we can hire people in our place and go back to our real jobs, as Kyoko is so fond of saying.

-          How could you leave her in England to sort out your mess…

-          In my defence, she’s doing great. Everyone is doing great. And I’m still working for them, too.

It was true. Ren ran the business downstairs, but was still the head of Ren’s Design, a position he would have never left to anybody else, and one of his top designers. That was why he spent so much time in the office, mostly night-hours, given the time difference, catching up with the main agency in the UK, joining their call conferences, sending suggestions and designs back and forth. He fuelled on passion, and Yuusuke was hopelessly devoted to his determination. Which was why he tried his best to keep up and not fall behind, to make his side-brand shine while Ren and his team took care of the managerial aspect for him.

He shared his brother’s penchant for hands-on, direct experiences, and that was the reason behind their current jobs as shop assistants: testing the waters on the field and listening to customers every day held a totally different value when they were the ones doing it. It had worked for Ren’s Design too, contacting the independent shops directly, showing off their small collections at the local markets, managing their first, tiny boutique on their own… perhaps they could do this too, even though it was taking a toll on their bodies, and minds. But Ren was not giving up and he never complained, so Yuusuke didn’t feel like he had the right to.

All in all, even getting stubborn over something as important as advertisement in their home town sounded a bit too petty, if not outright selfish, in that light.

-          I’m sorry.

-          For what?

-          For… acting childish, over this.

-          Yuu.

He lifted his head and saw Ren holding up his full-figure shot, one that had appeared on many magazines overseas and on every corner of London that counted. It had also reached Paris, and they had celebrated that achievement with actual champagne.

-          What do you see?

-          …me, buried under a duvet of acrylic feathers and wearing so many fake diamonds I could have sunk a ship?

Ren rolled his eyes.

-          Very funny. I see a beautiful man, brimming with self-confidence, extremely proud of his talents and accomplishments and definitely happy. As in, having real fun playing around with garish clothes and shiny jewels. A man that is not exactly conforming to the rules, never really had, because he always made his own and stayed true to them and to himself – which is, in my humble opinion, much more difficult that people believe, especially in this world we’ve chosen for ourselves. It makes me a bit sad to hear you’d rather hide in your home-country, instead of stating proudly that yes, it’s you on the posters, since the whole concept of Ren’s*Flower can be summarized by yourself… - but that’s probably because I’m a proud older brother with no sense of shame and an awful tendency to brag about my little sibling. You don’t owe me anything. The success of this business doesn’t depend on the fact that your face is or isn’t on the walls. I admit I’d like it better, from a conceptual and managerial point of view, but I’d never hold it against you and I won’t have you forcing yourself to agree to that just to do me a favour. Understand?

-          Yeah…

-           This man right here would never change who he is to suit someone else’s tastes, would he?

Yuusuke shook his head with a little smile.

-          No, he wouldn’t.

-          Good. Which brings us back to Mr Headband.

-          WHAT? Why!?

-          Because he might have been a disappointment, but it’s not the end of the world. Like it or not, babe, I know how that head of yours likes to work in these cases and let me tell you before you go on a self-deprecating tangent: you did nothing wrong. There is nothing wrong in the way you style your hair, in the way you smile, in the way you talk. It was an unfortunate happening and nothing more. Perhaps he’s not the right guy, after all, perhaps it’s just the wrong time, but don’t try to blame yourself for something that happens to everyone, all the time. The sea is full of handsome fish.

-          And yet they never seem to swim my way.

Ren slipped him the photograph.

-          Frankly, at these conditions, I think it’s totally their loss.

Yuusuke smiled.

-          Thank you.

Ren got up, collected the cups and ruffled his hair.

-          Let’s go get our beauty sleep, now. Well, you do. I have a round of Skype-sex ahead of me.

-          If you ever attempted something like that at this hour, Kyoko would put you on video-call and invite all the staff in the conference room.

-          And she wouldn’t even loose her cool. See? And you have the guts to say I have it better than you?! Look at me: the only thing I’ve been making love to, as of lately, are my designs!

-          Ew.

-          It was a figurative speech.

-          Still gross.

-          I don’t accept criticism from someone that draws thongs for a living. And I don’t think I have to remember you who used to stalk every bookstore near our house for those magazines you were so fond of but too young to buy!

Yuusuke batted his eyelashes.

-          But I’m still an innocent soul that is coming to terms with his curiosity and purely aesthetic preferences, while you are a depraved and corrupted being that feasts in the pleasures of the flesh.

-          Go to sleep, brat. You’re grounded.

-          Kuha! Good night to you, too.

*

That night, Toudou stood in front of his bed, his most recent purchase spread out on the blanket, contemplating his possibilities.

He had picked up a small scratching post from the local pet-shop before going home, tight after having seen Hana off at the station, so when Arakita had brought the devilish cat to him, Toudou had felt prepared.

It seemed that Arakita had been right: the beast, at the moment, seemed set. The litter box had been strategically placed, she had eaten her food, the bowl of water was full and the new toy had her outmost affection and devotion. And homicidal instincts. Plus, she had the whole couch for herself and no Toudou around. Everything was fine.

Which left Toudou with a lot of free time and no actual rush to go to sleep, a lucky combination that, thanks to his epiphany at the shop, to his vivid memory and to Makishima’s proximity, had stirred a certain urge in his body. An urge he had every intention to indulge.

But since he had decided to make the effort for that man, to properly pursue him one way or another, Toudou was resolute to derail a bit from his usual routine. The eggs had been designed for that purpose, yes, but he had a bigger obstacle to overcome, and a worse taboo to break.

He spent long minutes contemplating the blindfold, the cuffs and, finally, the handcuffs. They didn’t look much like his thing, he had never really fantasized about tying up his partner or being the one tied up in some way, but since he had seen that photograph something… mischievous had sparkled in him – and even if it was merely his mind overreacting to the novelty of it all, he found it necessary to go through with it. After all, there was a very high chance that the man of his dreams might be into that kind of thing: Toudou was finally ready to challenge himself to get even a step closer to the ultimate prize.

Hence, he stripped down to his underwear, folded the clothes neatly, put the bondage set back into its box, except for the handcuffs, and left the box near his pillow. He grabbed the handcuffs keys, all four of them, and attached them to a sparkly, plush keychain Hana had gifted him years before for a laugh and he still kept around, just in case. With that, he didn’t have to worry about losing track of the keys: the bed was small enough for him to reach every corner with a limb or the other; even if things got extremely heated, there was no way he could throw them out of hand, especially if he tucked them partially under the pillow. Then, he turned off all the lights except for his bed lamp, fished his phone out the bag, grabbed the lube from the drawer and settled down on the mattress.

The metallic clink of the handcuffs as they closed around the bedframe and then his wrist thrilled him in a very promising way.

At that point, his free hand had already found the phone and unlocked the screen. He scrolled through the most recent photos and selected the very last one, although with no little amount of guilt. Truth was, he hadn’t resisted: in his state of panic (and wonder), he had just had to take a picture of that photograph, morbid as it sounded, though in all honesty, at the time, he hadn’t had this in mind. He had just wanted a picture of Makishima, and the guy didn’t even seem to be on any social platform…

It was weird, being on the verge of masturbation, looking at an image that was surely meant for that purpose and feeling guilty about getting aroused by it. So, Toudou tried to stop thinking about all the implications and started paying attention to more pressing details, like the toned muscles over those thighs and calves, or the pretty curve of that neck, the way blankets pooled around that waist

His other hand tried to sneak below but was blocked by the handcuffs and Toudou gasped. It was new and unexpected, though not exactly… unpleasant. Still, it was clear he couldn’t go on like that, so he gave a last, longing look at the picture and put his phone aside, ready to take things in hand, so to speak.

No, it wasn’t unpleasant, he mused as a languid heat spread all over him and he found out one hand was not nearly enough, but it was also all he was going to get: being restrained was frustrating and maddening, but in an addictive, exciting way. It made him growl more than once, then gasp loudly when he finally managed to pay attention to all the sensitive parts of his body, lift up by pushing on his heels and moan.

It was more than easy, at that point, to imagine a lean, white body above him, teasing him with experienced moves; too easy for his mind to picture Makishima’s hand in place of his own, to follow those imaginary fingers and their movements down his shaft and balls, and then lower and towards his hole, working him open while thin lips sucked on his nipple and-

…and Toudou felt observed.

He turned his head toward the slightly opened door (he never closed them, he didn’t need to, he lived alone) and nearly screamed when he saw Sasha, in all her fluffy glory, staring right back at him with reproachful, judging eyes.

-          Go away. Come on, go away, leave me alone! There’s nothing for you here!

Except, there was. Because in his naivety he had deemed it a good idea to pick up a brand new, sparkly and plush keychain for the twinkling keys. And Sasha adored plush, shiny things that made twinkling sounds.

Realization hit too late and they moved at the same time: Toudou flailing his limbs wildly to scare the cat away and get a grip on the keys, Sasha leaping forward with the ancestral accuracy of a lethal predator. The poor man, clumsy from his lust-filled stupor, was no match and after painful seconds of shouting empty threats to the air, he could only watch, helplessly, as Sasha padded happily out of the room, keychain in her mouth, fluffy black tail stuck up in the air.

*

An hour and a half later, he had tried everything: from dislodging his wrist to get free, to slime it up with lube; from picking at the tiny lock of the handcuffs with a hairpin (there were always hairpins in his drawers, thank you very much), to moving out of the room bringing with him the whole bedframe. Needless to say, none of that worked. Not even throwing his pride away and begging Sasha to have mercy. She had answered with a loud meow that had sounded more like a death sentence.

Thus, Toudou had given up on whatever was left of his dignity and, after another painful hour spent in the hop that the handcuffs would just break open by themselves, he had grabbed his phone (that had mysteriously but conveniently survived the commotion) and dialled his second emergency number.

Arakita picked up at the eighth ring.

-          DO YOU HAVE A FUCKING IDEA OF WHAT FUCKING TIME IT IS!?

-          Bring your spare key and come here. Now.

*

Forty-five minutes, a string of profanity, three fits of laughter and another, more amused, litany of sears later, Arakita tossed the handcuffs keys on Toudou’s chest. All that was left of the keychain was a pinch of cotton and a tiny strip of pink cloth. Toudou freed himself with far too much force than necessary and, without turning, he quickly put on the shirt he usually slept in. Only then, flushed and with angry tears of humiliation threatening to fall from his eyes, he pointed at the monster in Arakita’s arms. A monster that even had the nerve to look pliant, as Arakita scratched her ears, and purr.

-          That thing is the devil incarnate.

-          Ah?! This cutie?! She just like to play…

Toudou looked at the beast and saw her narrowing her eyes at him in what could only be mockery. He tore at his hair and muffled his scream into the pillow. Arakita had the decency to leave him alone and retire in the living room with his damned cat.

At least, Toudou was sure his days as a cat-sitter were over.

*

-          Look at the bright side, Jinpachi! What if neither of us picked up and you would have had to call the landlady?

-          Go to hell, Shinkai.

 

Chapter Text

Lights in the lounge bar were low and emanated a warm glow. Carefully selected music played softly in the background, high enough to provide pleasurable company but not invasive at the point of drowning conversations. The place was packed with people: couples and groups of friends crowded the booked tables, and the stools at the counter were all occupied too. More often than not, more people squeezed themselves in between those seats with the intention of catching the eye of the bartender. Or, more likely, of a fellow customer. The staff had gone all out decorating the bar for the occasion and the effort they had put in all the details was being paid back the enthusiastic response of their patrons.

Well, almost all of them. Trays full of sweet drinks created especially for the night and appetizers and snacks served in heart-shaped bowls went around like crazy, an endless stream of alcohol and sugar, sprinkled with wide beams and friendly winks from the waiters. There was just one booth they were all avoiding (at least, as much as they could without being accused of poor customer-care). It was the one under the stairs that lead to the mezzanine floor, and they could afford such unprofessional behaviour simply because the three sulking men seated at the table were among their most faithful regulars.

Actually, only two of them were sulking. And glaring daggers at each other.

-          Why the hell do I have to see your ugly mug on Valentine’s day too, uh!?

-          Because Shinkai invited me! And I’m not extremely happy about bumping my legs against yours, under the table, you know.

-          Then why the fuck did you accept, dumbass!?

-          Now, now, Yasutomo. Calm down.

-          Why did we even have to come here, of all places, tonight!? Everything is just so fucking… pink! It makes my teeth rot!

-          Because I happen to like the dessert selection they pull out for this season: their banana split is the best in town and the Valentine’s variation is to die for. Unfortunately, it’s only available today.

-          Is that why you ordered three?

-          Those two are coming home with us.

Arakita rolled his eyes and looked away with a grimace. Shinkai seemed to not even notice as he took a long sip from his neon-pink cocktail through a blazing red straw. The cherries decorating the drink had long since disappeared behind his plump lips, causing more than one pair of cheeks (including Arakita’s) to flush scarlet.

-          What are you even drinking, anyway, Arakita?

He snatched the small bottle of coke away, glaring at Toudou with all his might.

-          I like Bepsi, okay!? And I don’t accept this kind of bullshit from someone whose drink has glitter in it!

-          And a flashy fuchsia umbrella. Look! The pattern matches my headb-

-          What kind of shit were you high on when you thought it would have been a good idea to call him, Shinkai!?

-          Don’t be mean, Yasutomo. It’s fun to go out together like this.

Toudou pouted and toyed with the ice in his glass.

-          And don’t act like you had plans for tonight, either. It’s not like you were going to celebrate…

Arakita closed his mouth around his own, yellow, straw and mumbled something incomprehensible. It might have included the words ‘what do you even know’ and ‘not in public, you moron’. Perhaps Toudou felt that he had sounded meaner than intended, because he deflated and back-tracked.

-          Sorry for being the third wheel, guys.

Shinkai touched their drinks together.

-          Now, now, Jinpachi. You were right: I was the one asking you to come out with us, tonight; no need to feel that way. Let’s just enjoy the cocktails and music and have a good time together.

-          These songs are cheesy as fuck.

-          So far, I can name at least six or seven of them that I know for sure you keep on your playlist.

-          What the fuck, Shinkai!?

Toudou raised his glass at him before downing the rest of its content and gesturing the waiter for another.

-          Go easy with the sherry. But don’t skimp on glitter, please!

-          You want to shit diamonds or something?!

-          I’m getting drunk on tawdry cocktails with my two male best friends on Valentine’s day because I have an unrequited crush on a guy that right now is probably having the kinkiest sex with someone else. I deserve some glitter.

-          Yes, well, I am watching the whole bar making eyes at my boyfriend, who is getting drunk with our whiny, nosy best friend. While I could have, you know, kept said boyfriend home for myself and maybe got him to fuck me into the mattress all night long, something that, given the amount of alcohol and sugar in his system, is evidently out of the question, at this point.

Shinkai didn’t give any sign to have heard him. Toudou passed Arakita his sparkling glass.

-          Wanna try some? I think you could use some glitter too.

Arakita gave in. He had nothing to lose, after all. The taste was… surprisingly passable. He looked at Toudou with round, surprised eyes. Toudou nodded with a knowing smile, winked and laughed loudly, giving him the thumbs up. Arakita took his head in his hands, elbows on the table.

-          But why does it have to be so damn pink!?

Toudou asked the waiter to double his order and leaned on his chair, flipping his hair and casually striking a pose that could have belonged to a commercial.

-          Fabulous has its price, darling. Deal with it.

*

-          I need an excuse to break the ice and start a conversation with him.

Toudou had obviously decided to be a pensive, whiny drunk that night. Shinkai hummed, an expression of serene grace and quiet bliss on his face, and Arakita knew they had lost him for the time being. Which left his equally tipsy self in charge of his presumed best friend’s love and sexual life. Fucking great.

-          You do!?

-          I don’t know what to say to him! What can we talk about!?

-          Toudou, I swear I saw you bond over expired milk while waiting in line at the supermarket. And you became best buddies with that guy that wanted to smash my face in less than a minute, just because you had put your mind on it. You literally cannot shut up, even in your sleep. How can it be a problem!?

-          It’s not the same thing at all! – Toudou slammed his fists on the table – I like him! I could screw up with your guy, it’s not like you didn’t deserve a fist or two, that time an-

-          You little piece of shit, whose side were you on?!

-          Justice. Point is, I can’t fuck up with Maki-chan!

-          …already that intimate?

-          See? I lost control once and blurted out an embarrassing nickname!

-          I think it’s cute.

-          You own a pet bunny, Shinkai.

-          I can’t make any other mistake with Maki-chan…

Arakita thought it was high time they threw the discussion to the winds.

-          Grab a copy of ‘Blown with the wind’ in their video section and go to pay while sucking on a lollipop. No need for talking, message crystal clear.

Toudou gaped at him, clearly broken beyond repair.

-          Better yet, offer him a spicy umaibo with whatever excuse you deem right and, while he’s at it, tell him that if he likes it that much you can give him something hotter and harder to swallow, next time.

-          Oh my god, Yasutomo, you can’t just walk up to people and order them to swallow.

-          It worked fine with you.

-          Yeah, because we were talking about actual food.

-          Ah? I definitely wasn’t.

Toudou, that had followed the exchange as a match of tennis, clutched his empty glass and cradled it to his chest, intimidated by the sudden tension.

-          Yasutomo, I believe we need to talk.

Arakita, the irony, swallowed loudly, but the moment was interrupted by the sound of Toudou slamming the glass back on its heart-shaped coaster. The half-melted ice inside it rattled dangerously.

-          WOULD YOU PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO ME!?

 

***

 

-          Well, I think it went fine!

Yuusuke groaned and didn’t even lift his head from the indigo couch he was sprawled on, face-down. Perhaps if he stopped moving altogether the cushions would swallow him entirely. It was an appealing idea. Before he could put the plan into motion, though, Ren sat on him and braced himself on the back of the small sofa, tilting his head backwards until it touched the wall.

-          Yuu, are you alright?

-          You should have asked that before getting comfortable all over me.

-          I’m not “comfortable”: you’re bony as fuck, I need an actual pillow. But that’s not what I meant: I came to annoy you and you didn’t even acknowledge my attempt. I’m kinda offended. What’s wrong?

-          Too tired.

Ren smiled and slid to the floor, careful to not dislodge his brother.

-          No plans for Valentine’s?

-          Not really. I knew we were going to be busy until late.

-          Let’s skip cleaning, for today: we can tie up tomorrow, let’s get changed and go out!

-          Don’t think that just because you’re leaving for London in a bunch of days you can skip your share of chores.

-          I don’t, you brat, I just feel like relaxing, for once, and maybe getting a little bit wasted. Hide’s coming here to pick me up with Saeko and Miyu: you know them, why don’t you tag along?

-          No, thanks. I think I’ll just go to bed with a can of ice-cream for dinner.

-          Yuusuke!

-          Kidding. But Tadokorocchi said he was going to stay open late as well, today. Told me to go crash at the bakery once we were done here. We’re probably going to hang out somewhere.

-          Good. Snatch all the chocolate that you can, whilst you’re there.

-          I’m sure there will be no need: his mother has made it her mission to put some meat on our bones. I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least two whole boxes of leftover cakes already waiting for us. Not to mention assorted bread.

-          Saint woman.

-          Passed by in the early afternoon. Said that our joint selling was a huge success.

-          I can confirm: we were out of stock before lunch. And the raffle has been extremely popular too: good thinking. We should probably do something similar, maybe spring-themed… ohi, what about cherry blossoms? We coul-

-          Can we please stop talking about business, right now? Christmas is over, New Year’s is over, Valentine’s is over – we can take it easy for a while, can’t we?

-          I can give you the couple of weeks I’m spending in London. But you can’t stop sending in designs. Those deadlines still stand.

-          I know, geez.

-          …and I would be grateful if, in the meantime, you could think about some kind of Celebrating Sakuras event.

-          Fine! Just not tonight.

The doorbell rang loudly, completely out of the blue, and it startled both of them. Through the opaque window, they could make out the shape of a couple of people trying to look inside. Yuusuke groaned again.

-          Why do they never read the sign!?

-          They do. They just choose to ignore it. And it’s Valentine’s.

-          Perhaps if we stay perfectly still and silent they’ll go away.

-          You are not an opossum and they are not predators: they want to fuck and they need our stuff to do it. You can’t really oppose this, Yuu, it’s the force that moves the world, after all.

-          Couldn’t they plan this in advance, at least!? Come buy whatever the hell they want during actual working hours?! Can’t they do it in the basic way, for once!? It’s not like the outcome is going to change that much, after all…

Ren chuckled at that and went to open the door.

-          Aw, Yuusuke, babe. Such naivety and innocence. Please, never change. Good evening, sirs, and welcome to Ren’s*Flower! How may I help you tonight?

As Ren lead the slightly embarrassed late-hour customers inside, he gestured towards Yuusuke, who had tried his best to sit properly on the couch but still looked done.

-          Make a note about installing that vending machine: I hate it with all my might but it could save our lives during the hlidays. Mail Hide, too: tell him that I’m not going anywhere until way after midnight.

-          This is… unbelievable.

-          It’s business, pup. Come on, it’s not like we’ve never pulled a real all-nighter before.

Mercifully, at one point (Yuusuke didn’t even bother checking the time), people decided it was, indeed, time to get to the actual fucking, allowing them to close the shop for good and think about their own life, finally. Ren put on a brave façade and forced himself to go out with his pals, Yuusuke found himself sitting on the front step of Tadokoro’s bakery with his best friend. Wrapped in heavy coats and woollen scarves, they didn’t seem to mind the cold as they nibbled at a freshly baked sweet potatoes.

-          Pastries are overrated.

Tadokoro laughed at that and pressed a wide palm to his shoulder.

-          You have to admit it’s much easier to seduce someone with melted chocolate and cute bon-bons.

-          I don’t know. I find this potato very attractive, right now.

-          That’s because you are an hungry goat and because we are freezing our asses out here instead of going inside.

-          I’ve been locked inside all day, I needed a bit of crisp air. Though we can leave if you’re cold.

-          Nah, it’s been the same for me: I don’t really want to go back, yet. And I sure as hell don’t want to crawl into some bar: if I see another heart-shape today I’m not answering for my actions.

-          How about a walk through the neighbourhood?

-          Sounds cool. But let me fetch the pork buns.

-          Tadokorocchi!

-          What? They’re warm and you love them too!

*

The soft food was, indeed, delicious.

-          Where’s Kinjou, by the way? Tadokoro chewed the rest of his bun and offered Yuusuke another from the large paper bag he’d brought with him.

-          Took an early train this afternoon to go surprise his sweetheart.

-          No way.

-          Tell me about it: a buff researcher and a stone-faced cyclist acting like lovebirds. Can you even imagine them?

-          I couldn’t, until now. Thanks for giving me nightmares, Tadokorocchi.

-          You’re welcome. What about Onoda?

-          That Hime thing he’s so fond of… or whatever it is that he’s into these days: they held some kind of special Valentine’s marathon at this theatre on the other side of the city. I’m pretty sure he dragged Imaizumi and Naruko with him. Teshima and Aoyagi?

-          Had to send them home in the afternoon: they kept making eyes at each other and were starting to be embarrassing.

Yuusuke laughed at that.

-          What a couple of bitter old men we are!

-          Speak for yourself: I bake cakes for a living. I breathe sugar.

-          …I sell sex toys, Tadokorocchi.

-          Exactly my point. You need me to remind you about the magical existence of romance.

-          Oh, please.

-          I mean it. Remember that Shinkai guy I met during races? We walk into each other at the gym, every now and then, and sometimes he’s there with these friends of his: one is about your size, a bit loud, maybe, but I think you might like him.

-          Are you trying to set me up with a stranger?

-          I’m trying to have you broaden your horizons. You know, going out with other people, apart from me and Kinjou. The kids don’t count.

Yuusuke stoped in the middle of the sidewalk, looking slightly hurt. Tadokoro caught up in time.

-          Don’t get me wrong, Maki: we love you. That’s why we’d like to see you… happier?

-          And random outings with random people should suffice?

-          Well, they certainly won’t, if you don’t agree.

They sighed at the same time, Tadokoro scratching his neck and looking away, Yuusuke walking slowly towards him.

-          I’m not really the dating type, Tadokorocchi.

-          I know, sorry about that, it didn’t come out right. It’s just… you’ve looked kind of down, lately. We wanted to try and help making it better, somehow.

Yuusuke linked their arms and leaned on him.

-          I’m sorry I got you two worried. Work has been a bit stressful, these past weeks. London was worse, at times, but neither you or Kinjou were there to see it. I’m okay, I guess. I’ve got this… insane crush for a customer of ours that came out of nowhere and didn’t end well.

-          You didn’t tell me anything.

-          Because there was nothing to tell: he came a couple of times, I got my hopes up and it turned out I shouldn’t have. Perhaps that’s why I’m not in the mood to go out with random people, at the moment.

-          I see. Sorry, I didn’t know.

-          You were only being a good friend, so it’s fine. Thank you.

-          Wanna rant for a while and thrash this asshole that disappointed you?

-          It was hardly his fault if I went on a tangent.

-          Still, it might do you some good to laugh at his expenses, and I could use some venting myself. You know, to end this shitty day on a lighter note.

-          Ehi! We both made a lot of money today! And you like Valentine’s!

-          I know: I was trying to rile you up!

-          …I’ll let it all out on one condition.

-          Bring it on.

-          You have to stop pretending that Hamada’s rejection didn’t hurt you and keep me company.

Tadokoro was pensive for a moment.

-          I need more food for that.

Yuusuke rolled his eyes, but he was smiling.

-          Then let’s go back to your place and fetch everything we can.

Tadokoro arched a brow at him. Yuusuke hit his arm.

-          Yes, you can count me in. You were right: I’m starving.

 

***

 

-          You sure you’re going to be alright on that bike?

-          Arakita, we’ve been through this. I’m not nearly as drunk as you believe. It’s fine. The walk and cold air cleared my mind quite a lot.

-          Shinkai had the same amount of drinks as you and I have to half-carry him.

-          Because his drinks had thrice the amount of alcohol that ours did. I checked.

-          Geez. Fucking great.

Arakita walked for another couple of meters (not an easy task when Shinkai was leaning so heavily on him) before noticing Toudou wasn’t following anymore. He manoeuvred himself and the ballast that was his boyfriend’s body with a little difficulty, finally managing to turn and look back: Toudou had stopped in the middle of the narrow road, bike at his hip, and sported a troubled, slightly guilty expression.

-          Arakita.

-          What.

Toudou looked up, teeth toying with his bottom lip.

-          Sorry for ruining you Valentine’s.

Arakita nodded in Shinkai’s direction.

-          What do you mean!? This idiot here called you first, didn’t he?

Toudou shrugged apologetically.

-          He wanted to be nice because he knew I was going to be alone. But I shouldn’t have accepted. I busted your night, and I’m sorry.

Arakita stared at him with a grimace for long seconds, then he resumed walking.

-          Dumbass. It’s not like I can’t light those scented candles tomorrow or any other day.

-          Still, you had plans. You shouldn’t have had to babysit me. I’m sorry for imposing like that: it was inconsiderate and out of line.

-          Cut the formal crap, Toudou! It’s fine!

-          Still-

-          I said it’s fine! Gosh, what a handful you are!

-          Sorry.

-          I swear that if I hear you apologize one more fucking time…

-          Alright, alright!

They walked in silence for several minutes. The streetlamps above them flickered.

-          Toudou.

-          Mh?

-          Why didn’t you have a date for tonight?

Toudou stuttered.

-          W-What do you mean?

Arakita made a vague movement with his shoulder.

-          Well, you’ve never really been the long-term-relationship type, nor the committed-boyfriend kind that people want to celebrate Valentine’s Day with… but this is one of those showy and tawdry holidays that suit you, you’ve always enjoyed them so far, never had trouble finding someone to share them with… I mean, those three girls at the table beside ours seemed pretty interested, from the looks of it, and you barely flirted with them.

Toudou looked down.

-          I…

-          Are you alright, Toudou?

It wasn’t a mocking question, but a serious one, and it sounded like it had been long overdue. Toudou worried his bottom lip for quite some time before answering.

-          Yes… and no, I think? I can’t really say I’m unhappy, right now: the job is nice, my colleagues are cool. I have you two, and Fuku, and Hana is getting married, so the family is all close and united and… stuff. It just… gets lonely, sometimes, I think? But… I don’t know… dating people like I’ve always done… even thinking about it it’s… tiring, in a sense.

Arakita said nothing and waited for him to continue.

-          I guess… I guess I wouldn’t mind to… fall in love. A little bit.

Again, Arakita stayed silent. There wasn’t much he could add to that without recurring to trite clichés. It wouldn’t have been in his style to offer some kind of verbal comfort to such admission. Instead, he acknowledged Toudou’d words with a sober nod, made sure to have a solid grip on Shinkai and walked forward at Toudou’s side. Their shoulders touched all the way back to Arakita and Shinkai’s apartment, but neither of them mentioned that fact.

When they reached their destination, Toudou bid them goodnight quietly and hopped onto his Ridley, pedalling home at a steady pace. Arakita watched him go until he disappeared around the corner: as soon as Toudou’s back was not visible anymore, he sighed heavily and mentally prepared himself to carry Shinkai up a flight of stairs.

-          Geez. I know I love you but why do you have to be such a lightweight!? I mean, I have close to zilch body fat, how come that you are the one always getting drunk? What’s even the point of all these muscles if you can’t even hold your liquor?

-          Actually, Yasutomo, I can.

Arakita jumped in surprise. He hadn’t expected Shinkai to be conscious, nor to be able to give him a straight answer.

-          Yeah, sure thing.

Shinkai straightened his back and stood at his full height. He disentangled himself from Arakita and hopped up the stairs eagerly, taking them two at a time with a perfectly sober control over all his limbs. Arakita gaped at him and then chased him with an angry roar, tackling Shinkai right when the latter was turning their front door open. Shinkai didn’t even budge.

-          You’ll wake up the neighbours, Yasutomo.

-          YOU MADE ME CARRY YOU ALL THE WAY HERE!

He received a kiss to his brow and saw Shinkai shrug before retreating in their home.

-          Seemed like a good excuse to cuddle. And you handled things with Jinpachi very well, I’m proud of you. Oh, by the way: I love you too.

Arakita had reached such a level of indignation and embarrassment that his brain had stopped functioning. He stayed on the threshold with his mouth open, tongue trying (and failing) to form words and right index finger pointing in the general direction of Shinkai, a poor attempt at being vicious and standing his ground. Shinkai’s voice came from the dark hallway and snapped him out of his anger-induced trance.

-          Ohi, Yasutomo… what were you saying about candles?

-          Shut up, asshole! You don’t deserve them!

-          Pity, because I stumbled on the massage oils this morning and I thought we could give the whole thing a go…

Arakita didn’t answer. Shinkai’s head poked out from the kitchen.

-          If you’re still interested in the whole ‘being fucked through the mattress’ thing, that it.

Arakita kicked the door closed and stomped to the bedroom with and endless litany of curses and creative insults. Shinkai stashed the his spare banana splits carefully in the fridge, chuckling when he heard Sasha hiss and cry a loud, indignant meow from the corridor. As if her favourite someone had just thrown her out of the bedroom. She sped to the kitchen and Shinkai gave her a soothing treat when she butted her head on his legs and rubbed herself all over his ankles. Then, he checked Usakicchi’s cage and noticed the trail of clothes that his still grumbling lover had left behind on his way to their room. Shinkai stepped out of the kitchen eagerly, but not before taking a freshly bought (and well hidden) spray bottle of whipped cream from the fridge.

Happy Valentine’s, indeed.

 

***

 

When the handsome man that they called “Hachi” walked in their shop a couple of days after Valentine’s, in the evening, Yuusuke felt strangely calm and weirdly at ease. Perhaps it was the consciousness of him being an unobtainable prize for the likes of Yuusuke’s, perhaps it was the nervousness about Ren’s departure. Or maybe it was just the throbbing pain in his left knee, where he had hit it early in the morning, slipping down a flight of stairs to avoid stepping on their neighbour’s kitten. All because Ren had had to be smart and chase him around while Yuusuke had his hands full. At least he’d had the decency to look contrite.

Anyway, he had enough on his mind to not feel too bothered by “Hachi”’s sudden appearance. He still made a gorgeous picture, though, hair slightly mussed by the wind and cheeks pink from the cold: he sniffed and Yuusuke found himself smiling, against all odds.

-          Good afternoon.

 

 

Toudou beamed in Makishima’s direction, unable to restrain himself.  

-          Oh, hi Maki-ch-

He stopped mid-sentence and dropped his gaze with a sigh, running his hand over his hair, vaguely self-conscious. So much for playing it cool and aloof, eh, Jinpachi? How could he even pretend to impress this guy with such childish behaviour? Be an adult, for fuck’s sake!

-          Sorry about that. I got carried away, last time. Good afternoon, Makishima-san.

 

 

Well, that was surely polite, but it felt strangely wrong and out of place. Makishima dismissed the thought.

-          There is no need to apologize.

The memory of a pretty intolerant and extremely rude man he had been addressed by while trying to promote Ren’s first collection, in London, came to his mind and left a bitter feeling. He shrugged it away.

-          …I have been called worse.

 

 


Toudou smiled at those words. Kindness had always had a soothing effect on him.

-          Still, it was rude of me to take such confidence. Please, don’t hold it against me.

He took a deep breath and pushed his luck.

-          Can I… offer you a cup of tea to make amends?

 

 

Yuusuke tensed, not so subtly. Calm down, he told to his galloping heart, he’s just being extremely nice, no need to blush all the way up to your ears! He has manners, that’s all: manners and a couple of girlfriends, so stop reading too much into his every word! He’s not asking you out!
The simple truth was as effective as a bucket of cold water and Yuusuke came back to his senses. All of them. Including those that had inspired his colourful, over-the-top rant at Tadokoro’s house. His lips curled into a pout at first but then slipped into a cheeky grin. Despite himself, he gave in to temptation and decided to have some innocuous fun as well, because it felt a bit like this man owed him some.

-          …won’t you let me call you Hachi, instead?

The man’s eyes widened at that and he blushed furiously. Yuusuke couldn’t help but smirk: the sight was undeniably cute, and the thought that he had been able to somehow fluster a guy that had bought lingerie for one woman and a bondage set for a second one at the same time and with a straight face was extremely… rewarding, in a sense.

 

 

Toudou was torn between squealing in delight (I’ll let you call me whatever you want with that mouth and that voice, darling) and digging himself a hole to hide into: it was, after all, the pet name his sister had given him when he was little more than a toddler and it was embarrassing as hell. Only Hana was allowed to use it, and that was only because he had no means to stop her. In doubt, Toudou groaned, puerile shame winning over tentative approaches.

-          Oh my god… you heard that last time, didn’t you? Look, I can’t really stop any of you from using it, but I want you to know that it’s actually Jinpachi. It doesn’t really change much in terms of meaning, I’ll give you that, but st-

-          …Jinpachi?

 For the second time in the span of a less than three minutes, Toudou stopped talking abruptly and felt blood rush to his cheeks. The casual way his name had rolled on Makishima’s lips had made his own heart accelerate quite a bit.

-          Y-Yeah… Well. Toudou. Toudou Jinpachi. Nice to meet you…?

-          I’m Makishima. Mh. Yuusuke. Nice to meet you, too.

Toudou nodded and his eyes twinkled. He was about to carry on the exchange when another customer came from the video section and asked for Makishima’s attention. Makishima sent Toudou an apologetic look and left his place behind the counter with his lips set into a thin, white line and a small hiss. Toudou frowned at that, but decided to leave the matter: instead, he turned in the direction of the toys room and told Makishima he was going to have a look around. Makishima nodded and watched him go before limping away himself.

*

Toudou strolled around the aisles without an actual goal: after all, he had decided to make that small detour to the shop on a whim, that day. The last conversation he had had with Arakita had given him much to think about and fuelled his desire to spring into action. Still, he wasn’t really a calculating guy, not in this kind of things, so that evening he had taken advantage of a free hour after the end of his shift and his feet had carried him straight to Ren’s*Flower. His only reason was that he had wanted to see Makishima, simple as that. And possibly make up for his silly slip of the tongue, too. That had gone smoothly, so far: he had even got a full name out of it, and Makishima had sounded uncharacteristically playful. Not that Toudou could make comparisons, of course: for all he knew, that could be a made up attitude reserved for customers as well as Makishima’s real personality… Still, it looked like Valentine’s had treated Makishima well, all in all, and if he was friendly and chatty, Toudou had to make the most out of it and act bold. No, he wasn’t going to follow Arakita’s crass suggestions, he wasn’t that shameless (yet), but at the same time he needed to move things forward.

His usual self would have asked for Makishima’s number in a clever, witty way that was impossible to refuse, but that wasn’t the kind of approach he could use to win someone of Makishima’s calibre. People probably bothered him for the same reason all the time, Toudou couldn’t afford to be discarded as one of the many, lame suitors. He was also sure those people used the merchandise on display to make predictable innuendos and go for a bold seduction. Makishima must have been used to such tasteless acts, so they were out of the questions too. True, Toudou had his good looks, but even that didn’t feel much of a weapon when his crush frequented certain environments. It made Toudou wonder if he should have just marched back to the counter and stated “I think you are gorgeous. I would like to have sex with you and possibly take you out for dinner. Before or after or both, you decide.” and be done with it. But that was just… so gross and unlike him. It wasn’t his style at all and how could he be convincing and charming if he didn’t feel confident in the first place? Nope… he needed something different. He needed to play on safe ground and that meant being chased, somehow. He needed to pick Makishima’s interest and make him curious, one way or the other.

Toudou also had a lot to catch up to in the experience department, if he wanted to be a partner worthy of serious consideration. Which lead to the vast selection of creatively shaped accessorizes in front of which he had ended up after all his wandering. Anal toys were definitely a novelty for him, though not in the sense that Arakita probably meant. Despite his friend’s beliefs, Toudou was not a prude. And he wasn’t new to that kind of play: through the years, while exploring all the exciting possibilities the human body had to offer (and crossing out the messiest, because ugh), he had had his share of fun that way – it was just something he didn’t feel the need for very often. Toudou had had adventurous partners that had liked to finger him, had even been on the receiving end of the relationship a couple of times, and knew that having an experienced dick in your ass was worth some minor discomfort. Very rarely, he had felt that same urge, that mild need to feel filled, and had tried to sate such hunger by himself. He wondered, as his eyes scanned the items one by one, if it existed something especially made for that purpose, something that could have made it easier

Well, of course there was, he wasn’t that naïve as to believe the contrary. Still, he had never considered such a possibility, not seriously, as he was in that moment, and if that wasn’t proof enough of the change going on within him and of the power that Makishima held over him, Toudou didn’t know what else could be.

He stopped dead in front of a vast selection of butt plugs. He had definitely spoken too soon.
Toudou recoiled in horror at the massive size of some of those things. Screw his previous thoughts of acceptance, there were still monstrosities around and there was no way normal people could fit such lengths and such girts in the same orifices he had in mind. No way in hell.

Nevertheless, his eyes were drawn to the rich indigo colour of the plugs in front of him. They were huge, intimidating and off-putting, once Toudou linked them to their intended use, but he couldn’t deny that they were, indeed, aesthetically pleasing. Their shape was harmonious and the texture perfect in its smoothness: true things of beauty, and beauty had always had a calming effect on Toudou’s stress. They came in different colour palettes and extravagant patterns, but among the limited editions, the eye-bleeding variations and the discounted, holiday-themed ones there were… interesting combinations. Like the black and indigo one Toudou was currently staring at. It looked… posh. Toudou would have never thought he could use that kind of adjective for a butt plug (or any sex toy, for all that mattered), but that had been the first word to come to his mind. Many others followed.

The red and white Christmas special was kind of funny with all its elaborate decorations; the vibrating one painted as a Christmas-tree (For Collectors) was worth a full eye-roll; the Valentine’s collection, with all its combinations of pink, red, purple and black, was cute and alluring. The basic models were all simple, in comparison, but full of personality in that lively, iridescent way that Toudou had started to associate with the brand. But among them, the black and indigo plug stood out for its sober colours and their unusually calming scheme: the curved indigo lines embraced the black body of the toy in a way that foreshadowed, in a sense, the rotating motions one would have had to impress on the plug to slide it into position, but not in a gross way. It kind of made Toudou curious to see how it would have looked covered in a shiny coat of lubricant.

Hardly believing his own thoughts, he took a deep breath and picked a box from the shelf to examine it carefully. He didn’t have much experience with that kind of shopping, but at least in that specific case he knew what to look for: through his job he had met a fair number of nurses and paramedics and there was no better topic, during late-night group outings, than retellings of the most embarrassing stories from the emergency ward. It was outstanding just how many weird things people managed to stuck in their butts, without sparing a thought about practicality or, above all, safety. And there were times when accidents just happened because of misinformation and poor choices in their brand of toys.

Thus, he checked the toy’s integrity thoroughly through the box and paid extra attention to the handle, pleasantly surprised at the width of it and its decorated end. Definitely easy to grip and large enough to not… disappear unexpectedly. The silicone, flared body looked homogenous and solid, the slimmer part that worked as a connection between it and the handle appeared strong and durable. Overall, reading the detailed instructions and tips on the box, Toudou felt reassured and safe. Confident, in a sense. Curious in a very positive way. It was the first time he was taking into serious consideration the purchase of a sex toy with no other reason than his own interest. This wasn’t a blind pick to fulfil a drunken bet, nor a more or less forced choice made to impress his crush, but a reasonable selection made by and for himself. And if it happened to attract Makishima’s attention, than all the better.

There was still a problem, though. The plug he liked came in SMALL and LARGE sizes, and though Toudou had no desire whatsoever to fit a giant pear in his ass, he knew his body enough to know that the SMALL and EXTRA SMALL ones were probably too small for him. But the MEDIUM rack was empty, unfortunately. Or luckily, because that was an extremely valid reason to call Makishima and have him for himself once more.

Well played, Jinpachi.

*

Yuusuke helped the man of the video, rang his purchase and disappeared in the storage room to get refills for the sold copies. During the trip to London, Ren planned to have a chat with his acquaintances at the studios and order more from their catalogue, thus expanding their popular selection of European movies with novelties and exclusive titles that had never crossed Japan’s borders before. If everything went right, and the was no reason for the contrary, they might have received a huge delivery of dvds before summer, along with the other half of his consistent spring-summer lingerie collection and the usual restock of the sold-out items. The storage room definitely needed some tidying up, or the new stuff would have never fit and no, he had no intention of clogging both their office and apartment with extra boxes again. He could as well take advantage of Ren’s absence and the post-holidays clam to clean up and reorganize it. And since Ren was off in a matter of hours, Yuusuke could start with not causing more mayhem and get rid of all the wasted space: he could put out on display everything that fit, for starters. He was also pretty sure there were items to re-stock, after all.

He started with the dvds, since he had already checked those, and quickly spotted the half-empty box he was looking for. Sure of its lightness, he crouched ignoring the discomfort in his knee and grabbed the cardboard firmly. As he straightened, a jolt of pain flared through his knee and he let out a loud hiss while throwing the box of dvds on the nearest, empty shelf. The noise echoed in the room and he cursed under his breath, massaging his bad leg. Obviously he’s had to get hurt right before a busy, lonely period.

Yuusuke sat on the nearest surface available (pretty sure it was the still unopened box of spring-themed vibrators) and waited for the pain to dissipate while sorting out his thoughts. Predictably, they wandered towards the handsome g-… Toudou. Funny how a slightly out of character, cheeky attitude had been enough to win him Toudou’s blush and his full name, all in one go. Still perched on the impromptu stool, Yuusuke glanced at the computer screen at his right. Ren had been adamant and inflexible about having one in the storage room as well, and now Yuusuke understood why: it was a great help, organization-wise, saving them constant trips to the counter and allowing them to check on every room of the shop even while working at the back, thanks to its connection to all the security cameras. He could see a couple of girls leaving the clothes section and the shop chatting animatedly (probably discussing what to buy first), the empty video section and even Toudou, alone in front of the anal toys.

Yuuuske watched with mild interest as Toudou scrolled through all the available items, focused but at the same time wary, an arm around his waist and fingers tapping his chin lightly. He giggled as Toudou’s eyes fell on the largest dildo of their collection and he gasped in horror, whole body tensing. It was… cute, and not at all like the navigated womanizer he was supposed to be. Then again, it might have been the normal reaction of a novice to the thought of hardcore anal play. Under that light, Toudou’s presence in that very aisle was a surprise in itself… perhaps he was making up his mind for someone else, again? It might be…

He seemed to have chosen butt plugs and Yuusuke settled himself more comfortably on the large box, enraptured. If it was going to be a gift, it was surely meant for someone quite important, because by the looks of it Toudou was taking the matter very seriously and double-checking everything. More than once, he made Yuusuke chuckle out loud with his expressions of utter disbelief mixed with something close to indignation (to an extent, Yuusuke understood and was forced to agree: the vibrating Christmas tree that could also lit up and sing was ridiculous beyond words, but Yuusuke was of the opinion that someone who wore a headband as an everyday accessory could not have a say on the matter).

Toudou had an expressive, open face and really, the things that that face and body language did to Yuusuke’s stomach weren’t fair at all. Said stomach twisted pleasantly at the memory of their most recent exchange and Yuusuke was sure it wasn’t due to hunger. Tadokorocchi had taken care of it. He marvelled at how easy it had been to joke lightly with Toudou, earlier, how simple to let the words out and receive a smile that promised so much more… It was a feeling he had missed, that mild self confidence that let his tongue loose, that comfort he so hardly felt in the company of others. It had been just a fleeting moment, but he had recognized it, and the boldness that had come out of it had taken him by surprise as well, to a degree. He had only needed to step back a little, stop overthinking things for just a bunch of seconds and Toudou had worked his magic, and they had made small talk like it was normal, teased each other like it was natural. For someone like Toudou, it probably was. For someone like Makishima, it definitely wasn’t, to the point that even a friendly banter with an acquaintance was something to muse over. It hadn’t been like that, in London. But London had also felt like a place suspended from space and time, somewhere he could act and be however and whatever he wanted; a haven of sort, even if life had been hard and making their way in the fashion industry had felt a bit like swimming in a pool of sharks. But that pool of sharks had also been his element, he had had sharp teeth and snapping jaws of his own, in the shape of a unique sense of style, an image he identified with completely and the courage to live up to it, to blind everyone with the confidence that had stemmed out of it.

London had been freedom, especially when he was still enough of a nobody to be allowed to play around. Japan wasn’t, yet, though since the night he had talked with Ren, Yuusuke felt motivated to change that, too. And what better chance to prove himself than the one in front of him? Toudou’s sudden appearance had lit a sparkle in his life that Yuusuke had never realized he’d been missing. It didn’t matter if things were not meant to work out between them – honestly, Yuusuke had never expected much on that department, in his life (he’d never done, there was no point), but it had been nice to go back to dreaming again, after so long. It had acted as a boost for his stale creativity, too. The whole agency had praised his most recent designs, approving them with renewed enthusiasm. Ren had looked so happy, and Yuusuke had felt a bit more like his old, London-self. Even without the prospect of romance, only a fool would have not latched onto such an unexpected spring, and Yuusuke considered himself no fool. Not all the time, anyway.

That loud, handsome man named Toudou had shaken him awake when he was falling far too deep into lethargy: it couldn’t be so wrong to feed on the feeling and just… let go, a little.

On the screen, Toudou seemed very interested in a specific article and Yuusuke took it as a clue to stand up and go back to work. Carefully, he slipped on his feet and winced when his bad knee gave out under him. Alright, easy day it was. Pouting slightly at his inability to reach and rearrange the boxes on the lower shelves and the floor (his left leg shook painfully any time he tried to bend it), Yuusuke resigned himself to move the lightest stuff around, mostly making room in the racks that he could work comfortably on and cleaning up the dust that had collected in many corners.

Toudou’s voice in the hallway made him jump in surprise and move so carelessly that another jolt of pain shot right through his knee. It hadn’t been a loud call, but he hadn’t expected it and was currently doing a poor job of keeping a tower of empty cardboards balanced over his head. So, even if it kind of went against their rules, Yuusuke called out as well, because in his opinion ignoring a customer for too long was even worse than letting him see the storage room.

-          In the back! Coming right up!

He didn’t make it out of the door, though, because Toudou quickly appeared on the threshold with a somehow shy face, worrying his bottom lip a little. Yuusuke didn’t miss the way Toudou’s eyes lingered on his awkward attempt to juggle the boxes in their allotted place. It made Toudou relax his features in a small smile. It made Yuusuke blush to his ears and turn into an uncoordinated sack of gangly limbs. Clearly, he still had a long way to go on the ‘loosen up’ thing.

-          Mh… excuse me?

He had a felling that the ‘Maki-chan’ had been on the tip of Toudou’s tounge, but he had caught himself in time. Somewhere inside him, Yuusuke felt slightly disappointed.

-          …may I ask you something?

Yuusuke threw the last box on top of the others and wiped his hands on the apron, streaking it with white dust-trails. Fan-fucking-tastic. Okay, he had kind of decided to give up on Toudou, but that didn’t mean he had a mighty need of making a fool of himself in front of the man repeatedly and look like an unkempt savage. He postponed the nervous breakdown in favour of a professional face. For now.

-          Of course. What is it?

Toudou lifted a package in front of his face and hid behind it, pointing at its front where a big LARGE was bolded. He spoke with a high-pitched, though small, voice, in a very rushed tone.

-          CouldIpleasehavethisinaMEDIUMsizeImeanisitevenavailableinaMEDIUMsizeI’mfineifitisn’tIwasjustwonderingthatmayb-

-          Yes, we have them. It should have already been on the shelves, actually. Sorry for the inconvenience.

-          …c-can I see one?

-          Sure thing, let me just get it.

Yuusuke had spotted them only a few minutes before, in the lowest shelf, right behind his calves. So, he pivoted on his good leg and made to retrieve one when his bad knee protested again. Not willing to put up even more of a show with weird faces and goofy limping, Yuusuke braced himself on the racks and bent down to a straight angle in what he hoped looked like a fluid motion, left heel slightly raised in an attempt to give the knee some rest without being obvious. From Toudou’s sharp intake of breath, maybe it hadn’t worked. With a dejected sigh, Yuusuke straightened his back gracefully and twirled on the spot again until he was facing Toudou with as straight as a face he could master.

-          Here it is.

 

 

Makishima handed him the package and Toudou was sure he was going to faint on the spot. For once, he hoped with all his might that Makishima wasn’t paying uch attention to him, because after the perfect, unobstructed eyeful he’d got of Makishima’s firm and round bottom, Toudou didn’t trust his body 8any part of it) at all. And he wasn’t ready to admit that he had been staring, even if staring had been unavoidable, because if that hadn’t been an intended flaunt and invitation, Toudou didn’t know anything about flirting anymore. Still, he had never felt more inadequate and shit, there it went his perfect plan of catching Makishima’s eye himself: the guy was toying with him like an hungry cat and Toudou, though excited beyond belief, had yet to counterattack. Keep up, Jinpachi – he told himself – forget your own way of courtship and keep up with him!

 

 

Keep up with him, Yuusuke! He has you wrapped around his fingers and you’re doing nothing! – Yuusuke cocked his hip and arched a brow, crossing his arms over his chest.

-          Do you need me to give you a thorough introduction to those as well?

 

 

Toudou had to be dreaming, because if he had heard correctly Makishima had just offered (with a smile that didn’t leave doubts, it was so eery) to properly instruct him about the wonders of butt plugs. In a low lit, private storage room while there weren’t other customers in the shop. And I offered him a coffee, jeez

Toudou had also to backtrack again: evidently, he had caught Makishima’s eye, somehow, and though one side of him was ready to scream ‘Yes!’ and throw himself at Makishima right there, the other (the most playful, wicked side of him) decided it was better to pull at the strings a bit more and boast in the feeling of holding the reigns, for a while.

-          Believe me, Maki-chan, you don’t have to teach me anything about these.

 

 

Yuusuke felt his cheeks growing hot and knew he had lost that round, so he moved to exit the storage room.

-          Wonderful. Now if you’d just excuse me…

…or at least he tried to, because his left leg gave out on the third step and he couldn’t help but whimper in pain and clutch a hand over it, cursing under his breath. He hadn’t even started to berate himself for the umpteenth poor figure when he heard another gasp and felt a firm grip on both his arms. Before he could recover from the surprise and squeak in indignation, his eyes were hit by white light, his bottom fell on soft cushions and he heard the door of the storage room close somewhere in front of him. Then, all he saw was Toudou’s concerned face above him. It lasted less than a blink, because when Yuusuke opened his eyes again, Toudou was kneeling in front of him and touching his bad leg in a far too confident manner.

-          Are you hurt, Maki-chan?

-          What are yo-…don’t call me th- …what do you think you’re d-

Toudou’s glare as he got up nailed Yuusuke to the couch and he leaned back on it while Toudou went back to the storage room and exited it shortly after, carrying the mandatory emergency kit with him. Then, he knelt at Yuusuke feet again and worked the suitcase open.

-          I’m a physiotherapist and it looks like your left knee is giving you trouble. What happened?

-          N-Nothing, really, it’s just a hit-

-          There’s nothing like ‘just a hit’, Maki-chan! You could have done serious damage! Have you consulted a specialist? How long has this gone on?

-          J-Just this morning I sw- WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?

The cool air felt even more chilly on his bared leg and Toudou looked positively intentioned to roll Yuusuke’s loose sweatpants as high on his thigh as he could and god, why did he have to have such warm, smooth hands?! And why did he have to look so completely professional, on top of that?!

-          Sorry, Maki-chan, I’m just checking for swelling, but it seems there was very little. Does it hurt really bad? Have you done anything at all to ease the discomfort?

-          I… ehr…

-          Here.

Toudou kept his right hand at the back of Yuusuke’s knee, moving it very carefully to hook it up onto his own shoulder, while he searched through the emergency kit and took out an instant ice-pack. He broke it open without a hint of hesitation and applied it to the injured limb with the perfect amount of pressure.

-          R.I.C.E., you know? Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. That’s the basic treatment for small accidents like this one. If it hurt very badly, I can give you an analgesic patch, I should have some in my bag, wait…

-          D-Do you always carry this stuff around with you?

-          Ahah! No, I don’t. But we’ve been moving stuff around at the rehabilitation centre I work at and there’s been a bit of chaos concerning bags and assorted boxes. I have to bring back at least a dozen heat-pads and a couple of toggles, not to mention ice-packs and patches and bandages. They won’t get mad if I tell them that I used some for a right cause.

-          Y-You don’t have to.

-          I have! I mean, the emergency kit was sealed! Why didn’t you take the ice yourself, this morning, after the accident!?

-          It wasn’t that bad! I had work to do…

-          Nonsense! You couldn’t know how bad it was. And you can’t work properly if you’re in pain! Worst, you could have fallen down and worsen your condition: you should take better care of yourself, Maki-chan!

It was weird, Yuusuke thought, being scolded so thoroughly by someone that not even a full minute earlier was on the verge of buying a butt plug and now was nestled stubbornly between his legs, keeping his hands sternly on Yuusuke’s naked skin. It felt a bit surreal.

-          First: no hard work. Try to not stand too much, if you can avoid it. It has to rest. Second: if it really hurts so much when you bend it, you should consider getting crutches. I can probably found you a pair for free with a phone-call, so let me know. Third: ice. Please, try to apply it for twenty minutes, then wait other twenty minutes before starting again for a total of three times. Then repeat the process for a total of three times a day. You should have already done it today, but I suggest continuing until tomorrow to see if the swelling is reduced. If it diminishes, but you still feel pain, try taking a hot bath or putting a warm towel or a heat-pad over it. Painkillers if it’s unbearable. It would be advisable to wrap the knee with an elastic band to keep it compressed, I can do it for you right now if you like. Oh, and whenever you lay down, make sure to keep it elevated with a pillow or keeping it over the arms of the couch. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.

The fact that Toudou had said all of that without missing a bit and sounding like a health campaign was… astounding, somehow. Yuusuke felt almost drunk.

-          I… ehr… will see what I can do.

Toudou nodded and fell silent, looking at Yuusuke’s red, bony knee with interest. Yuusuke felt suddenly very conscious of his scrawny form. And his sprawled position on the couch didn’t help, either. On the other hand, Toudou didn’t look like he had any intention of moving any time soon; Yuusuke didn’t feel the need to push him away. Thus, they stayed in companionable silence for several seconds, until Toudou spoke again, with a far softer voice.

-          So… what happened? From what I see, it doesn’t look like you took too hard of a hit, but it doesn’t seem like a light bump, either. I don’t want to pry, it’s just to understand if you might need to have it checked from a doctor. I can book you an appointment at our clinic and make you jump some queue. It’s close-by and has a good reputation.

Now, there were times for funny, silly stories about common accidents that surely looked ridiculous from the outside and times when “I slipped on a kitten because my brother is an ass” was the least appropriate thing to say. A handsome physiotherapist touching his bare calves and thighs while sitting in between them was definitely one of the latters, as far as Yuusuke was concerned. So he said the first thing that came to his mind to let the subject drop.

-          Mh… that’s not really something you’d want to hear… it’s kind of… personal, you know.

Toudou’s eyes widened ever so slightly and he swallowed before nodding briefly. Yuusuke had the impression that Toudou was running his thumb absent-mindedly on his shin, but given the fact that the man was still applying pressure to the ice pack, he dismissed the thought as a product of his feverish imagination.

Toudou picked his next words carefully.

-          So… did Valentine’s treat you well, Maki-chan?

The shop had done great and the sleepover at Tadokorocchi’s had been fun too, in a way. Even if most of it had come at Toudou’s expenses, something Yuusuke was starting to feel a bit guilty for.

-          Yeah… I guess you could say that.

Toudou’s smile faltered a bit but he kept it up and didn’t add anything. Yuusuke thought it was his turn to revive the conversation.

-          W-What about the set you bought last time? How did it go?

Now, that was definitely something that Toudou could not tell out loud, so he flashed the most convincing grin he could pull off while lying through his teeth.

-          Great.

Yuusuke deflated at that, but Toudou was too occupied with the ice to notice.

-          Good. Your girlfriend must have been happy.

Okay, where did that come from?! They flinched at the same time and stared at each other with equally mortified faces.

-          Sorry. No, really, just… forget it. That was totally unprofessional of me.

-          N-No, it’s nothing! Y-You only surprised me, that’s all. The fact is… I haven’t had a girlfriend in quite some time. Nor a boyfriend, for all that matter…

Oh, so it was already over, now? Had it been a one-night stand from the start? With both of them? But you didn’t buy lingerie for a one night stand, perhaps girl #1 had found out about his wild nights with girl #2/Sasha and left him, and Sasha had never really taken her place… And wait, had Toudou said ‘boyfriend’, too!? Did that mean Toudou was, contrary to every prediction, actually free and open to partners of both genders?! But was it worth the trouble, since he looked like the adventurous, flirtatious, cheating type?

But he’s also caring. Petulant, but very kind…

Violet eyes looked up at Yuusuke with a hint of coyness and Yuusuke threw every cautious thought to the wind. Ask him out, Yuusuke! Make him book that freaking appointment and ask him to have lunch with you afterwards!

-          Y-Yeah… actually, I know the feel…

 

 

Toudou sucked in his breath again. It was crystal clear, from the tone of their conversation and Makishima’s reticence to speak about how he had injured himself that he had somehow got hurt while trying out some acrobatic, kinky shit in bed. But the fact that he regarded himself as single was unexpected: it meant that he was the one-night stand type, then, or the friends-with-benefits kind, maybe. Not exactly Toudou’s style, nor what he was currently looking for, but another brush of his hands on that gorgeously toned, absolutely hairless leg (he should have expected that much, but the reality of it went far beyond his wildest dreams) was enough to make Toudou discard every doubt: that was a chance he couldn’t waste.

Just take a breath and ask him out, Jinpachi! Give him your number and offer to accompany him to the clinic after having breakfast together!

 

 

-          What the hell is going on here?

Toudou literally squealed at that and flipped over, though managing to not let Makishima’s leg touch the ground (he was a professional, thank you very much). It proved to be useless when Makishima snapped his legs shut and planted his feet firmly on the floor. Still, Toudou retrieved his balance and went back to applying the ice-pack in the offended spot.

The lean shop-assistant he had helped with the boxes the previous time had just walked out of the storage room (there must have been a back entrance he was not aware of?) and run straight into them. For whatever reason, it has sent Makishima in what looked like a state of panic.

-          Ren! It’s really not w-

First-name basis? And above all… Ren? As in… Ren’s*Flower? Anyway, Ren leaned on the doorframe, crossed arms over his chest, a sardonic smile on his lips.

-          Do tell, babe, I’m all ears.

Now, that was a weird way to address a co-worker. And Toudou had the distinct feeling that this person was glaring daggers at him. He didn’t like it.

-          He’s hurt. Swollen knee, from what I gathered caused by a hard it. I’m helping out.

Ren turned his attention to him.

-          Because you are…

-          A certified physiotherapist that doesn’t like people neglecting their health.

-          You don’t say…

Toudou nodded, irked. Makishima tried to get up but couldn’t help making a face as his left leg shook. Toudou shot up but Ren was quicker and grabbed Makishima first.

-          Yuu, are you alright?

Makishima attempted to nod but Toudou had none of it.

-          No, he’s not. He needs to stay off of that knee for some time and keep it cool.

-          Really!? Why didn’t you tell me anything this morning, pup, it was my fault it happened in the first place!

Okay, that was a piece of information Toudou had not needed at all. Something passed between the men as Yuusuke glared at his companion.

-          I’m fine, Ren.

-          This fine man here is right: you don’t look like it at all. Now, why don’t I leave you in his capable hands a little longer and take care of the shop in your place?

-          Well…

-          Take it easy. I’ll carry you upstairs once the shift is over.

Toudou tilted his head to the side. Ren got the unasked question anyway.

-          We live upstairs. Seventh floor, no elevator.

Oh.

-          I see.

Ren smiled softly at the two of them.

-          Well, sorry for the ruckus, I was just worried. I’ll leave you two alone now.

-          Actually – Toudou said, and handed Makishima the ice-pack, then re-arranged and closed the emergency kit, picked up his bag and slang it over his shoulder. – I really need to go. Please, Makishima-san, try to lie down for the evening and keep your leg elevated.

He searched into his bag and took out a box and a couple of business cards.

-          Here’s a box of the analgesic patches we were discussing earlier. And this is m-

He looked in between the two business cards but after a couple of seconds decided to put them away.

-          If the pain doesn’t go away in a reasonable time, please consider seeing a doctor.

Then, he addressed Ren and went to retrieve the MEDIUM sized butt plug from where it had fallen.

-          I need to pay for my purchase.

Ren glanced at the toy in Toudou’s hands and waved it off.

-          That’s on the house. Take it as a thank you for your kindness and help.

He looked pointedly at Yuusuke, that swallowed and nodded towards Toudou with a little bow.

-          Yes, thank you for your concern, Toudou-san: I’m …in debt. In fact I was wondering if you’d let m-

Toudou didn’t let him finish. He thanked them for the gift and walked out of the shop without saying another word.

*

-          Well, well, well…

-          Shut up.

-          That escalated quickly, didn’t it?

-          I said shut up!

-          I mean, one moment you can’t even bat your lashes at him and next thing I know I find you on your back on the couch, naked legs in the air with him kneeling between your thighs. I’m impressed.

-          Are you even listening to me?!

-          And that thing you did in the storage room, you know, that bending at ninety degrees sharp: I saw it in the monitors upstairs, kudos for that, it was flawless. I don’t have anything else to teach you.

Yuusuke opened and closed his mouth, face so scarlet it had to be physically painful. He hadn’t thought… he hadn’t even considered

-          My baby is growing up.

Yuusuke groaned.

-          Should I consider an autumn wedding?

He groaned louder.

-          You’re right. First, we should celebrate your debut in the world of adulthood.

-          I hate you!

He felt a hand on his shoulder and found Ren sitting beside him.

-          Really, was everything okay?

-          …it was? You heard him: he saw me flinch because of the knee and went all out.

-          …is he even a real physiotherapist?

-          It did feel like he knew what he was doing, if that’s what you’re asking. Why wouldn’t he be?

Ren sighed and scratched his nose.

-          Hear me out, I’m going to say this only once: I understand how and why you might have the hots for him, and I get that from a purely hormonal point of view it doesn’t really matter to you that he’s fooling around with at least two women at once, so I don’t fault you for throwing yourself at him, per se. God knows you need to get laid. Just… try to make sure it’s what you want, alright?

-          What do you mean?

-          Look, Yuu, you are not the most experienced one in this kind of games. It can be… very easy, for someone that knows what they’re doing to… use such naivety for their own advantage. So… stay safe, okay? By all means bang him and play with him if you feel like doing it but… on your terms. Always.

-          It was true, then.

-          What?

-          You were glaring daggers at him.

-          …I admit I was a bit taken aback by the sight of him feeling you up. And to be honest, I didn’t really like the way he got all defensive and stormed away, in the end. You were clearly trying to make a move in the end and he didn’t even look at your face.

-          Was it so obvious?

-          I’m your brother. But I might be reading a bit too much into it. Perhaps I just scared him off.

-          Yeah, thanks a lot for that.

-          I’m sorry. Really. It wasn’t my intention to bust your date, I was just worried for you.

-          You just wanted to intrude.

-          Don’t get cheeky with me, you brat, I’m responsible of your well-being.

-          I’m a legal adult, Ren.

-          That is still living under my roof.

-          It’s my roof as well!

-          Big brother’s right, okay?! Don’t talk to me as if you didn’t act the same for Yoko!

They looked at each other while thinking, simultaneously, of their younger sister.

-          Oh god she has to deal with both of us.

-          Yeah. Poor thing…

The silence stretched for less than a couple of seconds.

-          Message received, by the way.

-          Good. I’m only saying it for your sake, you know.

Yuusuke nodded. Then, he pouted.

-          I was this close to ask him out, but no! You just had to make an entrance and ruin everything, didn’t you!?

-          What!? I don’t believe you! So it did escalate quickly!

-          And for your information he’s single. Has been for a while.

-          And the women from last time?

Yuusuke shrugged.

-          Didn’t deny their existence.

Ren pointed a finger to his face.

-          If you as much as consider not carrying condoms with you all the time

-          Geez, who do you take me for?! I’m not stupid!

-          Nobody is, but you’d be surprised to see how many basilar things we tend to forget in front of a pretty face and a hot body. And he has a very pretty face with an extremely hot body.

Indeed – Yuusuke mused looking at the closed door of their shop – he has.

 

***

 

 

Toudou needed to blow off some steam.

Who cares if he’s banging his co-worker who happen to also be his roommate!? He told you he’s free! Of course he has the right to screw whoever he want, it’s not like he can’t indulge himself with whatever kinky sex routine that might potentially lead to broken meniscus and who knows what other injuries! It’s up to you to make him change his mind!”

He definitely needed to calm down.

And frankly, he couldn’t think of a better way to achieve such goal than to put to good use his most recent acquisition. There was still time before dinner, he already needed a shower anyway and there was plenty of water-based lube in the first drawer of his bedside table. He needed something that could hold his undivided attention for as long as possible, and fitting a plug of that size in his ass after months of anal inactivity was going to do the trick just fine.

Thus, he stripped eagerly as soon as he reached the bedroom, not bothering, for once, with picking up his discarded clothes, and rushed in the bathroom to relax under a hot stream of water and lean himself thoroughly.

Afterwards, hair and skin still uncharacteristically damp, he flopped on the bed and inhaled deeply. His head felt light (headbands looked great, yes, but after a whole day they also tended to give him mild migraines) and he wished his mind did, as well. It shouldn’t have been so… complicated, really. At times it was fun and entertaining, but he couldn’t deny that it often turned frustrating, more than anything. But he couldn’t help to think that Makishima was… kind of adorable, in his own twisted, depraved way. The brief chat they had exchanged had been nice. If that damned co-worker of his hadn’t interrupted them, Toudou would have asked him out once for all, and Makishima would have accepted, because it had felt like the right moment, even if nothing had gone as planned. Luckily, Makishima had seemed a bit out of his element too. Well, he couldn’t have imagined that Toudou was so passionate about his job (and so keen to lecture fools that didn’t take care of themselves properly): he had looked surprised, impressed despite everything while Toudou had been in charge and in control of the whole situation. And Makishima had let him.

It made Toudou dizzy with excitement. It was exactly what he wanted, to play on equal ground, although he had to achieve the same result in seduction, not first aid. Still, he couldn’t forget the closure they had shared for a fleeting moment, the colour that threatened to creep up Makishima’s face every now and then and the quiet talk that had progressed more or less naturally.

And god, how smooth those legs had been. Toudou cycled in his free time, had done it more or less seriously in his school days, he knew a thing or two about shaved legs and those were definitely recently waxed legs, a hairless expanse of softness that went up Makishima’s thighs and who knew how higher. And the firmness of those toned muscles was something Toudou could have dreamed of. Then again, thinking back at the photograph that he had stolen, it had to be somehow expected. It surely fitted Makishima’s image. And Toudou was getting hard at the mere thought of what could have been hidden under those lfashy and comfortable (though fitting and flattering) clothes.

It was with considerably impure images in mind that he finally started fiddling with his brand new toy. Fantasies about the many possible outcomes of their late-afternoon rendez-vous, had the Annoying Co-Worker (and roommate, and occasional fuck-buddy that had no care or shame whatsoever and let Maki-chan get hurt because he didn’t know the difference between acrobatic sex and extremely dangerous stunts) not shown up at all. In these alternative endings, Toudou mouthed boldly at the exposed skin of Makishima’s inner thigh and at the hem of the rolled up sweatpants, suggesting (as a certified physiotherapist) the outright removal of such restricting garments, since he needed freedom of movement to operate his magic. Usually, Makishima complied meekly, trusting Toudou’s knowledge on those matters, and after that, he would feel very strained by the constant pain in his knee and would lie wantonly on the couch, pulling Toudou with him and hooking his leg up Toudou’s shoulder, obviously following Toudou’s advice to keep it elevated. At this point, Toudou had to be shirtless, though the script didn’t include the specifics that had led to it, yet. It had to be revised, in the future, possibly including some nipple play.  Anyway, in the dream none of them had bothered with underwear, which was extremely convenient, just like the time-skip that allowed Toudou to jump all the boring bits like preparations and the retrieving of some kind of lubricant. Though he might have gone back to the idea of Makishima whimpering and begging as Toudou’s talented fingers hit all the right spots. That night, he opted for going straight to point, that was them having wanton, wild sex on the small couch, Makishima being very vocal about Toudou’s prowess and how he’d never felt that good, ever, despite his long list of partners. Afterwards (in every sense), they would realize Makishima’s knee was perfectly healed (thanks to Toudou’s skillset, of course), so Makishima felt in debt and very much like repaying Toudou right there right now, green hair coming loose from his ponytail as he got rid of their remaining clothes and pinned Toudou to the ground. Then, he would have fished the plug out of somewhere and put it in Toudou slowly and carefully, taking his sweet time with Toudou’s nipples, abdomen and groin as the latter grew accustomed to the new sensation, murmuring filthy words of encouragement and wonder at how incredibly talented and good Toudou was at all that. So much that Makishima didn’t feel like looking for other lovers anymore, if only Toudou would have him. And all of that before finally straddling Toudou’s impressive dick and riding it like he was made for it.

The second orgasm left Toudou panting on the bed and made him wonder how much time had passed, for real. A lazy glance at the alarm clock told him he still had some minutes to spare before cleaning up, removing the plug and maybe take another quick shower to get rid of the sweat. Perhaps he could skip cooking for one night and heat up some leftovers, for once. Well, that had been incredibly …satisfying, and he really had no complaints about the plug: it did his job perfectly.

He basked in the afterglow for another bunch of minutes, going back to his now favourite parallel universe, where he and Makishima were apparently tangled under a sheet of unknown origin, Makishima latching onto him like he couldn’t have enough of Toudou, kissing him all the time, everywhere, and Toudou being cool and smart and collected and making Makishima laugh and fall in love an-

His skin cooled down and Toudou shivered. Yes, definitely time to come down from cloud nine and go back to reality. Thus, he grabbed tissues and wet wipes from the pillow beside his head and took care of the mess. Then, he breathed in and relaxed as much as he could to ease the removal of the plug. He made sure to have a comfortable grip on it and tried to move the toy around. Gently.

His eyes flew open.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!

*

Shinkai wasn’t expecting any call, so it was with a bit of uneasiness that he went to pick up his ringing phone. He had been in the shower when the first call had come in, so he’d just let it die, but other three had followed in quick succession and Yasutomo was locked up in his study doing who-knows-what, completely oblivious (if not uninterested) to the loud ringtone playing in their kitchen. Shinkai, bare-chested, only sweat shorts on and a towel around his neck, frowned at the caller ID and went to check Yasutomo’s phone as well, just to be sure: its screen was blank and held no notifications.

At the fifth call, he answered cutting off the very first ring.

-          Jinpachi! Did something hap-

On the other end of the line, Toudou was definitely bawling his eyes out in sheer desperation. It made Shinkai’s blood turn ice-cold.

-          S-S-Shinka-iiii…

Toudou sounded incoherent and in shock. Shinkai paced through the living-room talking with the same tone of voice he used on the hardest patients at the vet clinic.

-          Jinpachi, calm down. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to answer sooner but I’m here now. It’s alright, everything is alright, just talk to me, please. Tell me what happened, will you, Jinpachi?

-          I… - a hiccup, a sob and a heart-breaking whine - …I’m stuck!

-          Mh? Excuse me, you’re what? Did you forget your keys? Are you outside on your own? Did you miss the last train?

-          No! I’m… I am at… at… - a wail – …at home!

Shinkai sighed in relief.

-          Alright. At least you’re safe, I guess. What is it, eh, Jinpachi?

There were weird sounds coming from the receiver. Shinkai had the impression that Toudou was shaking his head in denial.

-          Jinpachi, I can’t see you. Please, you need to tell me what is wrong. I’m getting worried.

-          I… I can’t talk to you about this!

Then why the hell did you call in the first place?! – Yasutomo would have said. Luckily, Shinkai favoured another kind of approach.

-          Jinpachi, you know you can tell me anything. I’m your friend.

He was only answered by the muffled noise of Toudou blowing his nose on a handkerchief.

-          …do you want me to pass you Yasutomo?

-          NO! Please, oh god, please no, Shinkai NO, don’t do this to me I won’t survive it please I’m begging you no no NO N-

-          Okay. Okay. Calm down. I was just asking. It’s rare of you to call me so suddenly. I thought you needed Yasutomo.

-          NO. Wait, where is he? Did he hear us!? IS HE WATCHING YOU?!

-          No, don’t worry. He’s coding in his room. You know how he gets when he can’t crack those softwares…

-          Please don’t tell him.

-          Jinpachi, what is it that I don’t have to tell him?

-          Shinkai, promise!

-          I promise. Jinpachi, I swear you’re scaring me, just spit it out.

-          …I’m stuck

-          What does it even mean?

-          I HAVE A BUTT PLUG STUCK IN MY ASS AND IT WON’T COME OUT! I TRIED EVERYTHING AND THAT THING IS STILL UP THERE! I’M FINISHED!

Shinkai blinked once. Twice. Thrice. And then did what every sane person in the planet would have done in his place. He burst out laughing.

-          DON’T LAUGH AT ME! OH MY GOD MY LIFE IS OVER AND YOU’RE THE WORST HUMAN BEING IN THE WORLD! I TRUSTED YOU, YOU BASTARD OF A DEMON, I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS! I… I…

He could hear Toudou’s hopelessness behind the yelling, so Shinkai turned a sympathetic ear to him. They were friends, after all.

-          Sorry, sorry. Forgive me, Jinpachi, it’s just – another fit of laughter – just so… unexpected!

-          Shinkai!

It sounded so desperate it forced Shinkai to be serious.

-          I’m listening. For real. Tell me everything I need to know.

*

-          Jinpachi, you’re not stuck for good. Your muscles have probably cramped down around the toy and now you’re definitely too tense to attempt anything. You need to relax an-

-          DON’T TELL ME TO RELAX! YOU CAN’T TELL ME TO RELAX WHEN I HAVE A SILICONE PEAR SO FAR UP MY ASS I CAN FEEL IT IN MY THROAT!

-          That’s physically impossible, Jinpachi. And relaxing is the whole point. In order for your muscles to loosen up enough you need to be calm.

-          WOULD YOU KEEP CALM IF YOU HAD A FIST UP IN YOUR BUTT?!

-          Jinpachi, perhaps you should consider going to the hosp-

-          DON’T SAY IT! DON’T.SAY.THAT.WORD! I GO OUT WITH THOSE NURSE, YOU HEAR ME, SHINKAI!? KYOKO-SAN IS WORKING THE NIGHT SHIFTS THIS WEEK AND I CAN’T BECOME ONE OF KYOKO-SAN’S ER JOKES, SHINKAI! I CAN’T!

-          Jinpachi, why did you call me, then?

Toudou’s voice turned small.

-          Please, help me.

-          What.

-          Please… come and help me?

Wait. Toudou couldn’t really mean… fuck.

-          Jinpachi, I work with animals. I’m not a doctor.

-          A sphincter is a sphincter, isn’t it?!

Shinkai could hear the tears already dripping down Toudou’s cheeks.

-          …are you sure you don’t want Yasutomo?

-          Are you sure you want to send him?

Maybe Toudou had a point.

-          If I’m not able to do anything I’m bringing you to the ER myself, and I’m going to knock you out if you resist.

Toudou sniffed on the phone. It was a rather pitiful sound.

-          T-Thank you…

Shinkai softened.

-          Don’t mention it. I’ll be at your place as soon as I can.

-          Shinkai…

-          Yes?

-          …please, don’t tell Arakita.

Shinkai sighed.

-          Alright, I won’t. But you do need to relax: put on some chamomile, take a hot bath, prepare all the lube you have at hand, I’m picking up some more on the way. The usual thing.

-          P-Please, hurry up.

-          Coming.

*

Arakita stepped out of his study scratching his stomach and making a face at Sasha, currently draped over his ankles. He swore he had heard the front door close with a thud.

He called for Shinkai but received no answer, so he stepped in the kitchen and found a tray with his dinner wrapped up in plastic containers. On the first one was taped a note written in yellow paper.

 

Make sure to eat everything: you only have to microwave it for two minutes, so no excuses. I’ll be back as soon as possible.
Boss called from the clinic: I have to help a fat chicken lay a huge egg.
Don’t wait for me. – Hayato xxx”

Chapter Text

Toudou didn’t go back to the shop until ten days later, give or take a few ones.

After “The Accident”, as he had started to refer to it as, he hadn’t had the courage to show his face in public for four days straight, leaving the house only to go to work (asking some time off had sounded appealing, though his boss would have demanded for explanations he wasn’t in the right state of mind to give) but making sure, in any case, to have the smallest number of interactions with people he could manage.

His colleagues had noticed, but he was never around them for enough time to give them the chance to ask.

Arakita had brought him groceries, once. Toudou had taken his loud taunting as rightful payback for the kind thought. He couldn’t even be mad at Shinkai. Since the latter had indeed kept his word and said nothing. Arakita just had an awfully good sixth sense smelling trouble and dirty secrets, especially Toudou’s.

Anyway, it had taken Toudou a total of a hundred hours to come to terms with the fact that random people were not going to know about The Accident if he himself didn’t tell them, because no, contrary to his (and Arakita’s) claims of the contrary, he didn’t have the words “I stuck a butt plug so far up my ass I couldn’t take it out” written all over his face.

Still, it had taken thrice that time to gather the guts to show up at Ren’s*Flower, even if he was desperate to know about Makishima’s condition. It wasn’t only his professional side speaking, of course: it was the perfect excuse to go and talk to Makishima about something that wasn’t his job, or anything directly connected to it.

In all honesty, Toudou was a tad bit fed up with the world of sex toys, at the moment. The bondage kit and the recently cleansed plug had joined the pack of eggs at the bottom of his wardrobe. The pack of eggs that Toudou had, in a fit of frustration, tore open in the attempt to put it to good use. He had named the less unlucky episode as The Omelette Mishap and the remaining five eggs, still sealed, were now scattered around in the darkest corner of the close, bever to see the light again. They deserved it, deceiving things that they were.

*

-          Good morning, Toudou-san. Please, do come in.

Makishima, surprisingly, didn’t look good that morning.

The messy bun of green hair was cute, but his skin was an unhealthy shade of pale grey, and he had dark circles under his eyes. At a closer inspection, dry lips as well. He was also not alone, something that Toudou had kind of expected, since that store seemed to never be empty: good for business, sure, but it was a hindrance for Toudou’s attempts at seduction.

The man standing behind Makishima was nothing like all the customers that Toudou had seen come and go from the store so far. He had a different aura. First, he looked like he could be more or less of Toudou’s age, maybe older, given the maturity of his features and stance. Second, he was undeniably, absolutely, delectably hot, with tanned skin and broad shoulders and a strong neck: his green gaze was positively mesmerizing and his shaved haircut highlighted his fine cheekbones and firm jaw. Third, he clearly had some fashion sense: his taste seemed to lean more towards the simple end of the spectrum, and his whole attire looked casual enough, but the jeans hugged his calves and thighs in the best way, the shirt brought attention to the muscles clearly hidden beneath it and the colour scheme was flattering to his complexion. The mirror-lenses shades were definitely the wild touch in that outfit, although a perfect one. Fourth, he had been sitting on the couch in front of the counter, at first, with a fancy bouquet of lilac, purple and cream-white flowers in his hands, and at the moment still looked like he had no intention to move-

The alarms in Toudou’s head, all of them, started ringing loudly. He addressed Makishima, moving to the side so that he could have the stranger in his field of vision.

-          Good morning, Makishima-san. How do you feel today?

-          Eh?

-          The knee. I’m sorry for disappearing like that, I should have come to check on it earlier but… things came up and I trusted you to consult an expert if the situation worsened too much…

-          Oh, that. T-The knee is fine, thank you. There was no need to worry so much: it got slowly better and in a bunch of days it was as good as new.

-          That’s the kind of news I like to hear. Still, I should have probably called at least.

Makishima shook his head and scratched his cheek absent-mindedly.

-          It’s alright.

They fell silent for a couple of seconds, during which Toudou was perfectly aware of the stranger’s gaze on him. It felt like being observed by a reptile. Still, it was Makishima that spoke first.

-          So… how can I help you today?

“You could start with hugging me and letting me snog you until lunchtime…”

-          I… I didn’t really have anything in mind, I just… I was in the area on my way to work and I kind of… wanted to see how you were doing.

Makishima blinked a couple of times and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear, looking away with slightly pink cheeks.

-          D-Did you.

The stranger moved with feline grace, fluid and silent as a snake, while glancing at the two of them from the corner of his eye. Toudou’s hair stood up and he had to restrain from growling.

-          I think I will have a look around, though, since I’m already here.

Makishima faced him again and nodded.

-          Yes. I mean, – he eyed the stranger briefly – I am a little busy right now, but by all means call me if you need anything.

Toudou stared back at the stranger as well, narrowing his eyes slightly.

-          I will.

*

He all but ran to the toys section, heart pounding wildly in his chest. He didn’t go too far, though, and hid behind the shelves closest to the archway, that were luckily the ones displaying condoms and lubricant. From that spot, he couldn’t see everything going on in the hallway, but a large part of it and, most importantly, he could pay attention to the conversation while pretending to be interested in fluorescent rubber.

There was a moment of silence in the other room, then he heard the attractive stranger clear his throat and the crinkle of florist paper as the bouquet changed hands.

-          Ehm… here.

Toudou saw Makishima taking the bouquet slowly and examining it thoroughly before burying his nose in it and sniffing coyly at a plump white rose and smiling softly.

-          Thank you.

-          Makishima, I-

The stranger was interrupted by a loud jingle as the door flew open and a huge, bear-like man Toudou was sure to have already met somewhere stepped inside. He was holding a large basket of edible goods in his arms, an elaborate thing filled to the brim with delicacies so fresh that their flavour reached Toudou’s nostrils in no time, making his mouth water. The new arrived scanned the room with a somehow troubled face, eyes lingering on the fit man that had brought the flowers and often darting to the side, towards Makishima, with something very close to guilt. With a shaken sigh, he moved to offer Makishima the basket, but stopped before the latter could take it, as if he had changed his mind, and finally opted to place the basket on the counter himself. Makishima peeked inside it.

-          They…uhm… they’re all your favourites.

-          Mh.

-          And the…ehr… more energy-giving I could make.

-          Thanks.

-          How… how are you?

Makishima leaned with his back on the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. Then, he crossed his ankles too, and looked at the two men in front of him with an angry scowl made worse by his unkempt, slightly sick appearance.

When he opened his mouth to speak, his expression resembled more a pout.

-          I’m not exactly happy with you two, right now.

Toudou swallowed and hid better among the condoms, making himself comfortable as he listened to Makishima’s scolding whispers. He had always seen the guy collected and composed, flustered at most, so this new side of him made Toudou more than curious. The two men in front of Makishima quivered under his accusing gaze and looked at each other helplessly. Then, they moved as one and bent forward in a deep bow.

-          We are sorry, Makishima!

-          Honestly? You should be.

-          We regret it and we are ashamed of our behaviour.

-          We lost control and you got hurt because of it. Please, forgive us.

Toudou felt his skin prickle and rise to goosebumps. What the hell was going on?

-          Really? I don’t know, Tadokorocchi, I’m feeling pretty pissed at the moment.

-          I’m sor-

-          I don’t care, alright? I’m definitely not able to sit, standing and moving around is a hassle and I’m functioning on painkillers! Ren is not even here, I’m supposed to take care of this place by myself and I feel like I was crushed by a train!

-          Makishima…

-          And all of it because you two just had to get wild. Again. I mean, how many times have we been through this!?

Somewhere in the toys section, Toudou had crouched down on the floor, palms pressed against his mouth to prevent himself from gasping loudly. Or screaming. Could it be that…???

Makishima sighed and worked a hand through his hair. It got stuck in the knots and he only managed to pull more green strands free of the already loose bun. He let out a frustrated sigh and removed the hairband completely, massaging his temples and then bending over the counter (Toudou didn’t miss the wince and neither did the two men) to retrieve a small hairbrush. The one Makishima had addressed as Tadokorocchi snickered:

-          You keep those with you all the time, now?

Makishima, hairband in his mouth as he tried to tame his hair, shook his head.

-          Nope, just today. – he gestured at the green mane - This thing doesn’t want to behave, today, as well.

His hands faltered and his hair fell back down like a waterfall of curls. Makishima groaned and pressed his fingers to his eyes. The man with the shades stepped forwards and extended a hand towards Makishima, palm upwards in the direction of the brush.

-          Please, let me.

The one named Tadokorocchi chuckled and watched as Makishima gave in and sat down on the padded chair behind the counter, quickly followed by the shaved man. Makishima grimaced as he settled down, and both his companions did, too, although in guilt.

-          Not too tight, right?

-          No, please, Kinjou. I really don’t want to deal with another headache today.

-          Very well. Tadokoro?

Tadokoro nodded and rummaged through the basket he had brought.

-          Here, have a piece of this. It’s honey-bread, still warm. Made it myself. I bet you didn’t even have breakfast: you never do when you don’t feel well.

-          I had tea.

-          Tea doesn’t count as breakfast if you don’t eat anything with it. Take this. I brought along vanilla cream to go with it, if you want.

The man working on Makishima’s hair, Kinjou, lifted his head.

-          I think marmalade would be best.

Tadokoro pressed his lips together. Toudou saw Makishima rolling his eyes.

-          I’ve been making these rolls my whole life, Kinjou, and I’m telling you that when you’re in a shitty mood there’s nothing better than drowning the bad thoughts in vanilla cream!

-          It’s far too heavy: the lightness of sweet marmalade brings out the flavour of the bread and makes it fresher, a true delicacy.

-          Vanilla cream!

-          Marmalade!

Makishima slammed his fist on the counter.

-          ENOUGH! I’ll have that honey-bread plain and simple as I like it, okay?!

Kinjou and Tadokoro glared at each other, more words clearly on the tip of their tongues. Makishima spoke in between bites, yellow crumbs falling on his black apron.

-          See what I mean?! Can you two cut the crap for at least half an hour, please?!

Kinjou ran his hands through Makishima’s hair and resumed brushing it carefully.

-          My apologies.

Tadokoro went back to the basket, re-arranging the food to show it off better and retrieving some juice in a small glass bottle that he uncorked and handed to Makishima, along with a blue straw.

-          Yeah. Sorry, Maki.

Makishima nodded in thanks and sipped at the drink, leaning his head back with a small sigh. For a while, none of them spoke and Toudou could only stare at the familiarity and domesticity of the whole exchange. It was Makishima to break the silence.

-          It’s not that I don’t like it when you guys get all competitive and worked up against each other, you know. I mean, we’ve done pretty amazing things through the years, thanks to that. It fires me up too, quite a lot, and I have to admit that you’re both a force of nature and a sight to behold, when you get in the mood but… not at my expenses. That’s not acceptable. Really, I was so angry last night that I was this close to call this whole arrangement off for good!

Tadokoro gasped. Luckily, so did Toudou and Kinjou.

-          W-What are you saying?!

-          M-Makishima!

But Makishima grinned in that crooked way of his and snickered, testing with brief touches the bun Kinjou had tied for him.

-          Kuha! But I didn’t, did I? I would be a fool, after all the years we have spent together, the things we have done. Nah, I wouldn’t give up on the three of us over something like this, but it should make you think about your actions that I considered it.

-          We really are sorry for hurting you.

-          It won’t happen again, I swear it.

-          We swear it.

-          Good. Geez, guys, this is so weird. I love it when you’re all manly and riled up and a dominating mass of testosterone, but I’d also like to reach my own peaks in one piece.

Tadokoro and Kinjou sighed.

-          You’re right of course.

-          We’ll make sure that that will always be the case.

-          In all fairness, we have done pretty well, so far.

Makishima smiled softly.

-          Yeah, we have.

He got up slowly and put his hands on his hips, narrowing his eyes at his two interlocutors. He turned towards Tadokoro first.

-          You totally went berserk last time and forgot your strength and size. You almost crushed me and I couldn’t make you budge an inch.

Then, it was Kinjou’s turn.

-          You got so focused on yourself and Tadokoro that no matter how many times I told you to slow down and stop, you didn’t even hear me.

They both blushed scarlet. The first to speak again was Tadokoro, turning towards Kinjou and glancing sideways at Makishima, much like a child caught by his mother in the midst of a prank.

-          Kinjou… I… I’m sorry I lost my temper.

-          It’s alright, Tadokoro. I’m sorry for provoking you on purpose.

They both faced Makishima, who nodded, and bowed again.

-          Please, forgive us.

Makishima let out a breath and shook his head with a smile.

-          Of course, you silly gits.

The two men looked at each other and beamed; Tadokoro threw an arm around Makishima’s shoulders and after a moment managed to trap Kinjou on his other side, too, bringing their heads close.

-          Good thing we have this scrawny thing to keep us together, eh, Kinjou?

-          Indeed. We would have never lasted this long without you, Makishima. We are very lucky men.

-          Now, now… we’re all equals on this thing, you know.

-          Which means we absolutely can’t afford to lose you.

-          Yeah, I don’t even want to think about what I would do without your crazy riding.

-          Geez, is that all I am to you! - Makishima teased. Tadokoro draped himself over him, ignoring his protests and Kinjou’s soft laugh.

-          Nah. You’re our greedy goat as well.

-          Tadokorocchi! Kinjou, did you hear that?!

-          Your favouritism for certain brands and designs has worked against you this time, Makishima.

-          Get off me, you bear!

-          Ohi, why am I the only one being told off when it was actually Kinjou that called you a goat first!?

-          I’m the Snake of the Stone Path!

-          And you shouldn’t be so proud of it!

*

Arakita’s phone went off unexpectedly, signalling the arrival of a message. Then another. And another, in quick succession, so much that he almost immediately lost the count of the new texts flooding his inbox. There was only one person capable of crashing his phone that way, and whenever it happened (which was always far too often in Arakita’s opinion), it meant no good.

He took a tentative sip from his can of lemonade and tapped the screen with a sense of finality and doom.

From: Toudou

Arakita pls.

Arakita are you there.

Arakita pls answer your phone.

I mean mail me back don’t you dare calling me.

Arakita I can’t speak rn don’t make me call you.

Oh god tell me ur not working.

Nobody’s giving you money for hacking your own videogames Arakita, they can wait for a little.

Arakita I need help.

Don’t make me call Shinkai I know he has a shift.

Arakita text me back.

[Toudou is writing…]

 

From: Arakita

FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU GIMME A BREAK!!!

From: Toudou

Why weren’t you answering my texts?!

From: Arakita

BECAUSE YOU FUCKING DIDN’T GIMME TIME TO!

From: Toudou

Yeah, whatever. Listen: do you think it’s possible for a guy to take two dicks at once?

 

Arakita spit out almost all the lemonade he had in his mouth and choked on the rest. Sour, carbonated beverage came out of his nose and he prayed in every language he knew that sugary drinks could be cleaned off touch-screens. It was a secondary concern, anyway.

 

From: Arakita

YOU LOST YOUR SHIT WITH AN AVERAGE PLUG WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU!?!?

From: Toudou

IT’S NOT ME I’M TALKING ABOUT FFS! JUST ANSWER ME!

From: Arakita

I need context. Call me.

From: Toudou

NO WAY! I’m at Maki-chan’s shop, I can’t get caught talking about him.

From: Arakita

I can already see a shitstorm coming but go ahead. Explain.

From: Toudou

So I come here to pick up from where we left last time and he opens the door looking totally awful and there’s this ripped man just standing behind him all stylish and hot stuff and 100%-would-fuck material and he brings Maki-chan’s flowers. Fancy flowers. Like, apology-bouquet-for-your-so-flowers. And then comes in this other mountain of a man, a huge bear with arms thicker than my thighs, and he has this armful of hand-made pastries for Maki-chan…

From: Arakita

…go on.

From: Toudou

And the two of them keep apologizing and bowing at Maki-chan’s feet and Maki-chan is lecturing them bc they’re hot-headed and competitive and rough and yesterday they were having such a good time like they always do and then they lost it and hurt him and now he’s in such pain he can’t even sit down! And it’s not the first time, so he thought about ending it once for all but then reconsidered because they basically love each other too much to give up and he’s the glue of their threesome or whatever.

From: Arakita

Toudou, where are you in all of this?

From: Toudou

Hiding behind a stash of weirdly flavoured condoms. Who would even want to wear liquorice ones?! It’s common knowledge that black makes you look slimmer!?

From: Arakita

…I see.

From: Toudou

IT’S NOT PHYSICACLLY POSSIBLE TO TAKE TWO, IS IT?!?! ARAKITA!!!

From: Arakita

Well, if you can fit a fist

From: Toudou

BUT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE BEAR IS HUGE!

From: Arakita

What are they doing now.

From: Toudou

They’ve braided Makishima’s hair and are moving heavy stuff around while he eats some pastries. It’s all very domestic? They kind of made up.

From: Arakita

Get out.

From: Toudou

From: Arakita

Geez, it’s a shop not a prison, moron. Wait until they’re out of sight so you don’t fuck things up more than they already are and rush back. This is too much for an improvisation, we need a quick briefing. Let’s meet for lunch.

From: Toudou

K, thnx, bye.

From: Arakita

DON’T DO ANYTHING STUPID!!!

*

Buying a plain-looking pack of his usual brand of condoms with an anonymous small bottle of unscented lube didn’t sound extremely stupid to Toudou. He had come for Makishima, after all: there was nothing risky about making a small purchase in a shop to have the excuse for wishing a happy day to its cashier. So, he waited for the bulky men to disappear from view and went straight to the counter, silent as only he could be, stopping right in front of Makishima, who had moved the blue straw to a bottle of water and was drinking from that, at the moment. As Toudou approached, though, he put it away and attempted a polite smile. It was the chance Toudou was waiting for.

-          Rough morning, Maki-chan?

The faint colour that the nickname brought to Makishima’s cheeks was the best reward Toudou could have asked for.

-          I admit I haven’t been in top condition, lately. And this is a big place to manage on your own.

-          Is there anything I can do^

Makishima shook his head in shocked amusement, though his eyes looked soft.

-          I can’t take more advantage of you, Toudou-san. Besides, I’m fine: my…her… friends here have already offered to take care of the heavier stuff and I don’t really have much more to do, once they’re done. It’s going to be a quiet day.

-          Sounds good. Make sure to rest plenty, then.

-          Is this my therapist’s advice?

“I sincerely hope it’s your future lover’s, but we could work on that if you just dumped your harem…”

-          It’s the advice of someone that cares about your well-being. Stay hydrated and take it easy, please. I’d like to see you in top form next time I pass-by.

-          I have no choice, then: better get back on track in no time…

Makishima rang Toudou’s purchase and Toudou paid, then made room in his bag for the small packages to avoid going out and hopping on his bike with his hands full. He felt light and a bit more sure of himself: he hadn’t flirted much (didn’t feel like it, after the kind conversation he’d witnessed), but neither had Makishima, and still the conversation had flowed naturally and stayed friendly. Given the circumstances and the way they had parted the previous time, he couldn’t ask for more. He was starting to believe that Makishima saw him under a positive light of some sort, and it meant the world to him. Thus, he didn’t push his luck and limited himself to a bright, heart-warming smile, the one that had won him the affection of all the usually cantankerous old ladies he’d had to deal with. His landlady included.

-          Have a nice day, then, Maki-chan!

-          Thank you, Toudou-san. You too.

He nodded and went towards the exit waving Makishima goodbye.

-          Just “Toudou” is fine! See you soon!

This time, he saw Makishima waving back shily. Toudou hopped onto his bike with renewed energy, lingering thoughts of double penetrations with men as hard and sculpted as two boulders momentarily (and conveniently) forgotten.

*

He was nearing the train station when his phone went off and he stopped on the side of the road to answer. The clinic’s number flashed on the screen and he stared at it, puzzled, for half a second before answering.

-          Boss? I’m on my way!

-          Well, don’t be.

-          I’m taking the train in ten minutes! I’ll be there way before than my shift starts!

-          What I mean is: Tanaka-san has had an emergency, she’s gone for the rest of the day. I can manage on my own this morning, but I’ll need help in the afternoon: can you cover that shift instead, Toudou-kun?  Sorry for the short notice.

-          Eh? No, it’s alright. I mean, I can do it, sure. Did anything serious happen?

-          Something involving her mother, but nothing life-threatening, don’t worry.

-          That’s good. I’ll see you after lunch, then?

-          Yes, please. Thank you, Toudou-kun: I’ll make sure you get a favour too, next time.

-          Then it’s a deal, I count on it. See you later, boss!

Toudou sighed as he pocketed his phone and scratched his head, mentally reorganizing his now upturned day. First, he texted Arakita, calling off their lunch date, then he searched through his bag looking for his commuter pass; he could leave the bike out of the station, take the train in the opposite direction and go back home in less time than it would have taken had he ridden it. He could then pick up some groceries, sort them out and tide up the house a little, maybe even cook something for dinner, since he would probably go back late in the evening, that day. Then he could jump on a train again, retrieve his bike and have enough time to pedal to the rehab centre, so as to not waste a whole day of training entirely. Once he got out in the evening, depending on the lateness of the hour, he would have considered going home by train or by bike. Now, if only he could find that commuter pass…

*

-          Makishima. All the boxes have been sorted.

-          Thank you, guys: it was nice of you.

-          About earlier…

-          Let’s stop talking about it, okay? Honestly, I didn’t mean to sound so harsh. You frustrated me, yes, but I never really considered leaving. It was only a little accident, it’s not like I’ve never fallen off my bike before. And it’s important for you two to be fired up and competitive with each other: out of races, you are each other’s best opponents, after all.

-          Yeah, but it’s pointless to be so great if we knock our climber off the road in the meantime.

-          Indeed. The Amateur Spring Race is coming: we need you at your best, Makishima, we can’t give up on the mountain checkpoint!

-          Kuha! I have no intention to let anyone else take it!

-          That’s the spirit!

They exchanged exuberant high-fives, the camaraderie between them back at full force (not that it had wavered much, all in all). They had been biking together in school for years, before Yuusuke decided to join Ren overseas, and then in the amateur circuits when he had come back, still fit and competitive but in no shape and with no desire to pursue a professional biking career. Tadokoro had taken over the bakery in the meantime, his mind never really set on the goal of making a living out of sprinting. Kinjou had been the only one with the untold dream of becoming a serious cyclist, and the only one with the right talent to do good in that world, but a bad accident in university had forced him to change his goals. He was quite happy now, with his studies and researches and a hobby he was still very passionate about, but it hadn’t always be like that, and Yuusuke wished he had been able to be more present in those awful months. Tadokoro had sounded helpless several times over the phone, but luckily he hadn’t been alone in the process of pulling Kinjou back on his feet, quite literally: Kinjou’s not-yet-boyfriend-at-the-time had been fundamental, and they had stayed together ever since.

-          Say, Makishima…

-          What is it, Kinjou?

-          Who was the guy that came in earlier?

-          Wait, weren’t we alone?

Kinjou and Yuusuke spoke at the same time.

-          Yes, we were!

-          A customer came in.

Tadokoro arched a brow at Yuusuke, that swallowed. So, Tadokoro turned his attention to Kinjou, that went on.

-          I asked because Makishima seemed to be acquainted with him, and…

-          Was he wearing a headband, Kinjou?

-          Yes, he was. Why do you as-

Kinjou’s eyes widened in realization. Tadokoro grinned like a man that had just hit the jackpot. Yuusuke cowered in fear.

-          Shut up.

-          Your hot stuff was here with us today and you didn’t even bother to tell me!?!?

-          Did I have to?!

-          Of course you had to! We have the right to meet him, we’re your friends!

-          My meddling friends.

-          Ehi, when a pretty face upsets our ace climber before a race it becomes our business too.

-          He didn’t upset me any more than you two did with your reckless stunts!

-          Yes, he did.

-          You have pined over your lost date for too much time to be considered nothing.

-          Your time dropped.

-          I had hurt my knee!

-          That’s irrelevant.

Yuusuke growled in frustration and made his friends chuckle. Tadokoro grabbed a chocolate biscuit from the still full basket and ate it in one fluid motion, then patted Yuusuke’s hair.

-          Alright?

-          Yeah. Looks like we’re on speaking terms. Less flirty but… normal. I can deal with normal. If there’s anything normal about this situation.

Kinjou smiled and touched his arm.

-          You’re good in dealing with irregularities too.

Yuusuke laughed.

-          Not in this field, I’m not. …he said he’d come back, though.

Tadokoro and Kinjou smiled at each other.

-          Well, then you can prepare for next time, can’t you?

-          Tadokorocchi, we talked about this…

-          And what did we tell you?

Yuusuke groaned and hid behind his hands, muttering into his palms.

-          “Toudou-kun, I think I could use a break. A good friend of mine runs the bakery next door, have you ever been there?”

-          He will answer yes or no. If he says yes…

-          “Cool. What did you had last time? Was it good? I don’t think I’ve ever tried it, why don’t you come with me and have another? My treat.”

-          While if he says no…

-          “Really? You don’t know what you’re missing: come with me, I’ll treat you.”

-          Perfect, isn’t he, Kinjou?

-          Humble and straight to the point. I like it. It’s very polite and genuinely cute.

Yuusuke punched his arm, more embarrassed for being addressed as “cute” than anything.

-          Get out. Both of you.

Tadokoro made a grand gesture of pressing a sloppy kiss on his forehead.

-          I’m going for real: mom’s going to get crazy, all alone in the shop.

Kinjou stepped forward, squeezing Yuusuke’s shoulder.

-          I’ll walk with you, Tadokoro. I need to get going too.

Yuusuke’s eyes fell on the bouquet behind the counter and he called after his friend.

-          Ohi, Kinjou! Thanks for picking up the flowers in my place! I totally forgot about them.

-          No problem, you know I have to pass by that florist on my way here. She said she’s sorry for messing up the number of bouquets, so she’ll make you a discount next time, if you’re satisfied.

-          That’s nice of her, thank you.

-          Well, see you in a couple of days at the park, then? Do you think you can make it?

-          Yeah, I guess so. It’s just a bruised hip and some scratches, it should be fine. If not, I’ll come anyway and do the lighter training route.

-          Let’s keep in touch anyway: I don’t want you to overwork yourself.

-          Aye, captain!

With a couple of steps they were out of the door and Yuusuke sighed, finally alone in the shop. He rubbed his neck and picked up the flowers Kinjou had brought, along with a round indigo vase he kept hidden behind the computer screen. There were matching ones, with matching smaller bouquets, in several different corners of the shop and that last one was supposed to be placed on the counter: a touch of colour and a breath of spring he was sure Ren would have liked. They knew the florist and she had indeed made a very good job with colour palette they had requested: the blooms fit the minimalistic elegance of their shop and their nuances of white, lilac and deep purple were perfect. They even smelled heavenly and that, more than anything else, put a small smile on Yuusuke’s face, for no real reason.

He filled the vase with water and positioned the flowers carefully. Once he was satisfied with the composition he stretched his arms up above his head and wondered what to do next. Restocking the underwear seemed like a good idea. He could even take out some old stuff from the storage room and mix it up with the new pieces with lower prices, perhaps even taking advantage of the lack of customers to play around a bit and search for a good promotional idea for spring… that sounded cool. He twirled on the spot on the tip of his feet, hands behind his back, and took a first step towards the lingerie room.

A spot of brown appeared in his peripheral vision, on the otherwise spotless carpet. What was that?

*

Toudou felt flustered. He hadn’t exactly planned to go back to the sex shop, but it was the last place left to check. He had walked the road backwards until that point and there had been no trace of his commuter pass that far, which could only mean that he had dropped it somewhere inside Ren’s*Flower… or so he hoped. To be honest, he also wished that the men from before had left: he wasn’t in the mood to deal with two buff boyfriends (or whatever they were, and where did all of that put that Ren guy from the other time!? Toudou needed time to think about that mess properly) showing their affection to Makishima. When he entered (and he did it without ringing the bell that time, because the door was already unlocked; it had been all morning, now that he thought about it), the hall was empty. A bit too empty, since Makishima was nowhere to be seen. Toudou looked around and cleared his throat: nothing. The shop was silent except for the unobtrusive background music. He noticed with a pang of jealousy that the fancy flowers had been put on display right on the counter and, unfortunately, they were gorgeous. He curled his upper lip in displeasure.

Calling up some of his proverbial confidence, Toudou stepped forward and searched either for Makishima or his commuter pass: he might not have been eager to face the guy at the moment, but he needed his pass. Thus, business had precedence over his complicated (though still not existing) love-life, and since there was no trace of his leather-brown case anywhere around the floor or the counter, he called for help.

-          Excuse me?

Makishima’s muffled voice reached him from behind the heavy velvet curtain that led to the clothes section.

-          In here! I’m in here!

*

Toudou had expected to find him at work, but he would have never been able to picture the kaleidoscope of colours that hit his eyes as soon as he stepped in the room.

It looked like someone had put a bomb inside a rainbow and let it explode in those few square metres. It wasn’t the assortment of nuances that baffled Toudou, he had spent a lot of time among those racks, he knew that at Ren’s*Flower they kept all their pieces exposed, but he also remembered the neat, organized way in which the articles had been displayed, a convenient arrangement to make browsing and shopping as easy as possible. At the moment, instead, the room was in a state of pure chaos, with mismatched pieces thrown everywhere, lingerie that didn’t look like it belonged to any shelf, boxes on the floor filled with far more than clothes and mannequins scattered across the room wearing half-dismantled outfits or nothing at all. In the midst of that maelstrom of sequins and lace stood Makishima, adding to the clash of colours with that eye-bleeding mane of his and sporting a neon pink, fluffy feather boa around his neck. Combined with his puce jeans (an extremely skinny pair Toudou had not noticed earlier) and amaranth hoodie, it made him look like a ruffled, overgrown flamingo. Speaking of actual fashion, it was an atrocity of cosmic proportions. In that context, weird as it sounded, it could almost make sense. In Toudou’s completely biased, totally skewed perspective, it bordered on “funnily cute”.

As soon as Makishima spotted him, though, he hastily removed the boa and wrapped it around the closest mannequin’s shoulders (probably putting it back where he had taken it in the first place), cheeks flushing yet another shade of pink. Then, he picked something from his back pocket and held it up for Toudou to see: it was undoubtedly his commuter pass. Toudou breathed in relief.

-          Oh, hi! Were you looking for this?

-          Yeah, thank you, Maki-chan: you just saved my life!

-          Hardly, but it was lucky you dropped it here.

-          It would have been inconvenient to say the least, to lose it outside.

Makishima handed back the leather case and Toudou grabbed it lightly. Their fingers brushed together and Toudou lingered, doing nothing to pull the pass out of Makishima’s grip. Makishima didn’t attempt to move, either, and for a bunch of awkward seconds they merely looked at each other, Toudou’s document in between them like a barrier. Makishima felt a strange relief at having Toudou so close again, it kind of made up for the rushed exchange they had had earlier that morning, and he felt more comfortable knowing that they were completely alone, for once. Toudou found it hard to look away from Makishima’s face, haunted as it was: his mind kept drifting to the totally made-up mental image of him in the throes of passion with his two aggressive lovers and Toudou had a difficult time associating that Makishima to this one, almost hesitant as he scratched at the mole beneath his left eye. But they were one and the same, and Toudou was finally able to enjoy some alone time with him.

-          Are you sure you are really better, Maki-chan?

Makishima actually smiled at that. A little lopsided, almost like a smirk.

-          Yes. I did that rice thing you mentioned. It fixed itself in a couple of days. It wasn’t a hard hit in the first place.

-          I’m only asking because I got concerned: you have to admit you looked quite tired this morning. And I happened to notice the stiffness you move around with.

Right, why was he doing this to himself? Was he really so adamant about making Makishima admit that yes, he loved it hella rough, so rough, in fact, that he actually enjoyed getting minor injuries from his sexual encounters and parading them around for the world to see, much like his rich catalogue of partners!? Well, hearing it out loud would have made it real and definite, something Toudou could have tried to work with, instead of lurking in the dark clumsily like he had done so far…

-          Oh. That. I bruised my hip. Nothing serious.

-          Aren’t you the clumsy type, Maki-chan?

Admit it. Admit it, admit it, admit it!

Makishima chuckled and looked elsewhere.

-          Not when it matters. I was just caught up in something bigger, that’s all.

-          I see.

-          But I wasn’t alone, and my friends got out of their league to make sure I was fine and that everything was treated properly…

Makishima trailed off, memory going back to the scene they had caused in the E.R., Kinjou rushing in, frantic with worry, giving the doctors and nurses a terrifically detailed report of what had just happened: it would have been comical, had Makishima not been bleeding, battered and dizzy from the bike crash. And had he not been mortally embarrassed by the fact that Tadokoro was carrying him bridal style, had done so from the park: it was just a skid to the ground, for heaven’s sake!

-          …it was quite embarrassing.

-          I can imagine – Toudou replied bitterly.

-          Can you? – Makishima asked with a raised brow.

-          Well, I can empathize. Please, Maki-cha, try to stay safe from now on.

-          Why are you concerned with my well-being?

“Because I’d like you to have sex with me, for once. For starters.”

-          Professional deviation. And I left you limping to find you looking like a thrashed rag, which made me doubt of my career choices and actual skills and if I’m not even able to give advice about swollen knees who knows how many lives I’m currently ruining while pretending to rehabilitate seriously hurt patients and, most of all, what could you even think of me if, after I boasted about my competence and babied you last time, your injury actually worsened and it was all my fault and… sorry. I went on a tangent.

Makishima’s eyebrows had reached his hairline.

-          Yeah. You definitely did.

Toudou groaned into his palm, thoroughly humiliated and defeated, but Makishima went on with a tentative voice.

-          But… you weren’t. A bad therapist, I mean. I followed that rice thing of yours to the letter, so to speak, and it worked. I just happen to be a magnet for trouble, sometimes. Usually when Ren is not around. Then again, trouble seem to double when Ren is around, so maybe that’s not really the right case. But when he isn’t here I can’t blame him so it looks like I have to shoulder more problems and… I went on a tangent too, didn’t I?

Toudou shrugged.

-          That’s fine. I think it’s the most I’ve heard you talk since we have introduced each other. Apart for the… - he gestured vaguely in the direction of the toys section - …exhaustive explanations.

Makishima was pink again, and it clashed horribly with his clothes.

-          But it’s nice, you know. To hear you talk.

 

It was pretty much everything he had been wanting for weeks, having a normal (at least for his standards) conversation with Toudou, seeing him look at Yuusuke himself with bright, sparkling eyes. Maybe it was a bit too much, all of a sudden.

-          Don’t you have, like, a workplace to be at, right now?

He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth and painted a dejected expression on Toudou’s face.

 

Toudou knew when to admit defeat. As much as it hurt.

-          Wait, I didn’t mean to sa-

-          Well, I do. I did, actually. But the boss changed my shift at the last moment, so no, not really. I was just… planning to get some groceries and go back home, but then I found out I had lost my pass and even if I could bike home I still had to look for it. So, well, here I am. With no real hurry to go, but if you’d rather-

-          No! I mean… I don’t want to scare you away. You’re not bothering me. I was just… - he waved his arms around the room, pointing at the various outfits - …messing around and trying to be struck by a brilliant idea…

-          By recreating the explosion of a volcano with sequins and neon green feathers?

-          It is for spring, alright?!

-          Cherry blossoms are pink, you know?

-          Pastel pink is boring. – Makishima stated. As if his choice of clothes wasn’t proof enough.

-          Pastel pink is cute. Everybody loves it.

-          Yeah, and everybody, in spring, latches onto it and cherry blossoms like leeches! It’s overused, overrated, terribly predictable and so cliché!

-          You sell dreams! Who doesn’t dream of living the most romantic moments with their significant other under a huge cherry tree in full bloom?!

-          I don’t need pastel pink for that!

-          You should! It’s perfect!

-          It’s the lamest thing in the world.

-          It’s the simplest, the classiest and the loveliest.

-          It lacks character and it’s a waste of potential!

-          Fine! What did you have in mind, then?!

Why on earth were they arguing over spring symbols and colours, of all things? Although arguing wasn’t the best word for it, since Toudou could hear the faint enjoyment in both his and Makishima’s voices. Still, he was supposed to ask Makishima out, not antagonizing him over fashion choices, no matter how horrific they were. But it was fun too, this friendly bickering over inconsistent topics, without a hint of malice, just for the sake of petulance and for the satisfaction of ruffling each other’s feathers in an amicable manner.

The silly quarrel, Yuusuke noted, had flared up from nothing, not a good sign at all, if he had to consider his own lack of self-control and tendency to fall for every little provocation on Toudou’s part. But it had also helped in blowing off some of the steam and tension that had risen during the awkward early conversation. He didn’t feel intimidated at all. Not in his shop, surrounded by his creations and defending his aesthetic sense (a sense that had gained him and Ren a successful brand, loads of money and a recognized place in the industry) in front of a guy that wore headbands with pride. And, last but not least, he was having fun, and that feeling, for some reason, seemed much more important than a date.

Makishima’s eyes fell on a partially opened box filled with extremely peculiar models that had been a hit in Europe and that they wanted to launch in their home-country too. The collection was a couple of seasons old, but given its unique nature there hadn’t been many additions to the catalogue, so far, and they could advertise it like the long, awaited re-launch of one of the most successful gambles their team had taken.

Swiftly, Makishima got hold of a piece of fabric and showed it smugly to Toudou’s taken-aback face.

 

The thing Makishima was holding was… weird. Toudou couldn’t really tell what it was: it looked a bit like some kind of hot pants, but maybe it was too short for that. It also seemed quite stiff and mildly uncomfortable to wear. It made weird squelching noises when Makishima moved it around. It was flashy and lucid. Almost shiny. It was lime yellow with purple at the waistband. It was…

-          Latex! – Makishima announced, positively beaming. Toudou was too horror-struck and full of indignation to properly appreciate it.

-          Latex. To celebrate spring?

-          Yes! Spring is all about life and birth and renovation and new beginnings, isn’t it?

-          Well, yes, it is.

-          Then don’t you see how perfect this line is?!

-          Honestly, Maki-chan, you have me at a bit of a loss here.

-          Don’t these colours speak of life to you!? Don’t you feel so very energetic and full of joy just looking at them? Don’t you want to discard all those dull winter tones and woollen pants and put on something different?

-          Look, I might start to see your point, although vaguely, but the thing is – he took an elegant set off of the nearest rack, a frilly piece with patterned baby-pink silk and white, fine lace, made precious by pearls of the same nuances - …wouldn’t something like this sort the same effect and, like, be faithful to the theme of cherry blossoms!?

-          But it’s not about sticking to tradition, it’s a matter of breaking through it with new visuals while maintaining its core and main themes!

-          Pray tell, how do you think a fluo-coloured piece of plastic can be testament of the delicacy of those flowers?

-          You would know, if you had ever bothered to try it on and just feel it.

-          It’s a matter of aesthetic too, Maki-chan!

-          Aesthetically, it a refreshing line with character!

-          What about the sense of innocence and wonder? What about the awe and the hint of melancholy? What about the parks full of families, friends and lovers?

-          You think that that push-up bra you’re holding looks more innocent than these booty shorts?

-          It’s fantasy, Maki-chan!

-          It’s about telling a story and communicating!

-          Fine! Let those acrylic things speak for themselves! Don’t come whining at me when you get in trouble because they don’t sell.

-          I bet I can make them the most successful item of the season!

-          I really want to see you try!

-          …and I think I want to start with you!

-          Wait. What?

Wait. …what? Damn his idiocy. Damn his foul mouth. Damn his short temper and tendency to flare up whenever someone challenged his sense of fashion. Or knack for business. Or both. Damn Toudou and his ability to make Yuusuke lose his common sense and the control of his brain-to-mouth filters.

Oh, well. Play it cool and get on with it. It’s not like you have much to lose, after all. Just smile and keep it up.

-          You never wore anything of this sort, did you, Toudou?

Makishima’s evil grin sent shivers down Toudou’s spine, and for all the wrong reasons, but he couldn’t back out now. He couldn’t go down without a fight, either.

-          Did you?

He almost slapped himself. Sounding like a five-year-old on the verge of a tantrum wasn’t his idea of a ‘fight’…

Makishima force himself not to blush as Toudou’s quick comeback made his little moment of victory backfire. The answer was on the tip of his tongue before he could consider lying. What point there was, after all? There was a reason he’d ended up doing that kind of job and was so adamantly passionate about it.

-          Of course I did.

And it shouldn’t have taken a navigated man like Toudou by surprise that people could enjoy some latex on their skin, every now and then.

 

It shouldn’t have taken Toudou by surprise, considering Makishima’s track record, but it did, because that was just how his mind reacted to yet another confirmation that he was crushing on a man his age that had done so much and seen so much it made Toudou, with his fair share of lovers and experiences, little more than a coy novice too nervous to even consider a mild change of position.

He needed to take time and decompress a little. He already felt on the verge of hyperventilating.

-          So, how does it feel?

Makishima swallowed. Toudou hadn’t run away screaming and he hadn’t made vapid comments about his own admission, which had to be a good sign, didn’t it? Still, it unsettled him a bit to be personally asked about his choice of underwear, even if he had started the discussion. One didn’t go around talking about testing his own fabrics and cuts for comfort or, even worse, aesthetical appeal and boosts of self-confidence. Not him, for sure.

And then his gaze found Toudou, lean, well-built, handsome Toudou with his healthy skin tone and bright smile, big eyes and shiny hair, a physique made for shades of blue and tight-fitting rubber, if he just…

-          …why don’t you try one and see for yourself?

Colour drained from Toudou’s face and he was sure his jaw had fallen to the floor. Saying ‘no’ meant closing off and possibly ending the conversation, train-wreck that it was, in the worst way possible and for good. It gave him the only option of exiting the shop and not come back for a while, leaving Makishima to mess around with his harem of studs again, carrying with him a very bad impression of Toudou and a reasonable excuse to not open up to him again. Which was obviously unacceptable at this crucial point of their relationship.

On the other hand, saying ‘yes’ meant throwing himself into a black hole and into a mess Toudou couldn’t rationalize fully. “But it’s only underwear, isn’t it? It’s stuff people wear underneath their clothes…” “It’s latex and it’s kinky and people wear it when they’re looking for…for…” “You have the body for it. You’re in perfect shape and there’s nothing you can’t pull off with a bit of confidence!” “Can you look confident in plastic, though?” “Kind of have to, at this point…” “Okay. Then let’s just play our last card first.”

-          Look, Maki-chan, I don’t think that this neon look is really my thing…

Makishima positively twinkled at that and lifted a huge box at his feet with a swift but grand gesture, no trace of physical strain whatsoever.  Toudou was so scared he took a step back. It was useless. The obvious stars in Makishima’s eyes didn’t promise anything good.

-          No problem.

*

It was a dream. It was better than a dream. It was like living the ultimate designer fantasy of dressing up the perfect doll with your creations. Except that the perfect doll was not a mere mannequin with the perfect completion, perfect hair-length, perfect chest-to-waist ratio, perfect muscle definition, perfect height, perfect lack of body hair on every visible inch of skin – but the living human being Makishima had the biggest crush on and that looked like the embodiment of everything he had ever dreamed of in a man.

*

It was a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare. Maybe it was even worse than a nightmare, because not even in his nightmares Toudou had ever been forced to pick an outfit among a bunch of rubber monstrosities in various shades of horrific nuances. Never in his nightmares the man of his dreams was so enthusiastic about pushing him into crazy combinations of latex with holes in the most inappropriate places (what was even the point of calling it underwear if it did nothing to cover your junk?!).

But there was that joyful sparkle in Makishima’s blue gaze, that comfortable aura around him, an electric excitement and a hint of childish wonder that was contagious, all in all. If it kept the pink hue on Makishima’s cheeks, if it made him look so lively and talkative, if it made him smile like that, so naturally and brightly, maybe it was worth the embarrassment of admitting he preferred the briefs over the hot pants.

Makishima looked like he was on the verge of passing out. Or jumping up and down on the spot like a happy pup, and all of a sudden Toudou’s day had turned significantly brighter.

Take that, Snake of the Stone Path.

*

Makishima felt on cloud nine and couldn’t have stopped even if he’d wanted to. Not that he did. He didn’t, in the slightest.

-          It’s the first time you try this genre and fabric, so I would stick to the basic cuts for now, to help you get accustomed to the feeling of it. Unless you are already used to things and the like. In that case, I can open up another drawer or tw- no? Very well, let’s go on with what I have here at hand in that case. I agree with you that fluo is not a ground you should play at, not yet at least, but I have lots of other options, better options, we’re bound to find something that suits you. Honestly, pretty much anything in this place would suit you, in the right colours. – at that point Toudou stopped listening, because if there was a way to get straight to his heart and head, it was paved with compliments - Now, have you thought about giving it a little character? I mean, nails or buckles are usually a given in this situation, but I have vinyl inserts and patterns to die for, not to mention crystals and if I’m not mistaken there should be a couple of models that went great in Europe and had this cute little heart-shaped hole just above the –

-          I’m fine with a model that is whole, thank you!

-          Wonderful. I have to ask, though: would you like to consider a transparent pair?

-          WHAT?!

-          A transparent pair of briefs, with tiny, glittering polka dots? Or a snowflake pattern in white and baby blue? Or painted over to look like lace?

-          No.

-          Pity. What colour did you have in mind? Because black is the obvious choice and I firmly believe it’s one of the best options for you, but if you’re feeling a little adventurous (and I really hope you do) I could help you take a walk on the wild side and provide you this indigo ensemble of briefs and t-shirt that would really bring out your eyes. There’s a variation with white and green diamond-shapes mixed in, but in my opinion you look more like a monochromatic guy, at least with rich materials like this one. They valorise your figure if you just let them speak: anything too flashy would take the attention off of you and steal the spotlight, which is totally the point sometimes, but in your case it’s absolutely unnecessary. I mean-

-          I’ll try the indigo and a couple of the black ones, Maki-chan.

“Keep showering me in indirect compliments and I’m jumping you right here right now. After having asked you to marry me and received a positive answer, probably.”

Makishima had, ironically, the exact look of someone being asked in marriage by the love of their life.

-          I’ll fetch you the right sizes.

*

In all honesty, Toudou thought as he stared smugly at his reflection in the mirror of his changing-room, just the gasp he’d torn from Makishima’s lips was worth the minor panic attack he’d had at the moment of figuring out how to put those things on without making an ass of himself. He mentally thanked his lucky star for having pushed him into wearing a pair of skimpy and tight briefs, that morning: they disappeared beneath the new underwear without creating weird bumps or ruining the general effect.

He had discarded the first black outfit as soon as he had glimpsed at himself in the mirror: just the sight of that many straps and buckles and exposed skin wrapped in shiny, black rubber had been enough He had tossed both pieces (the shorts and the shirt, or whatever it was) in the ‘Returns’ basket before Makishima could come back with the other selected pieces. It had been hard to refuse his pleading eyes, but Toudou had been firm about not letting Makishima see him with that thing on.

The indigo one had turned out as a pleasant surprise. Opaque, a sombre combination of blessedly normal briefs and a matching t-shirt that felt almost like a second skin. Makishima was right: the colour did bring out his eyes and without improper holes and weird cuts it wasn’t such an extreme variation of his usual underwear. Still, it looked different, and not necessarily in a bad way… Almost like a cycling jersey, just… more fetching. Sexier. So sexy, in fact, that he had willingly left the curtain of the dressing room a bit open and indulged Makishima (whom Toudou could actually refer to as his shop-assistant, at that point) when the latter asked in a slightly shaking voice if everything was alright.

-          I don’t know, Maki-chan. You tell me.

He hadn’t missed the way Makishima’s eyes had widened before he turned away to cough in his palm. When he brought his gaze back to Toudou, his face was back to the mask of professionalism Toudou was accustomed to, although cracking with barely concealed excitement.

-          Good. Very good. See what I mean with the colour? It really suits you. I have matching gloves and leg pieces that would do wonders if you just-

-          No accessories, thank you. But I see your point.

-          You are not convinced.

-          I am. It’s just… it’s new, you know? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great outfit to look at under the lights inside of a shop, it almost makes me feel like…

-          Like?

-          No, it’s stupid.

-          …like a model on a shooting set for a glossy cover? Because that’s what I was thinking.

Toudou wasn’t sure he had a will of his own anymore.

-          Y-Yes! Thank you! I-

-          It’s the lights, you know. They have the right tone for that kind of impression. And there’s the mirrors and colour-play, too, and up to a point it’s all kind of a marketing strategy, because the customer has to feel that beautiful and powerful, you know? Of course, our clothes play a huge part in it too.

The smile on Toudou’s lips had frozen, much like his guts.

-          S-Sure…

-          But… you have this presence that really makes it easier, for you, to recreate the magic. I’ve seen my fair share of mod- …people putting these things on, after all.

“In or out of these changing rooms?”

-          You don’t say…

-          So, how about giving it a chance, for real?

Toudou was tempted to decline and storm off. Damn his romantic brain for making him think it could have worked. Makishima was there to sell, for fuck’s sake.

-          I don’t know, honestly. I can’t really imagine myself wearing this anywhere but inside a changing room. Or an impromptu fashion show, that is.

Makishima ran his eyes up and down Toudou’s body, a finger pressed to his lips, and Toudou felt suddenly very conscious, very naked, and very much like a horse waiting to have his teeth checked.

-          Let me get a thing for you.

*

Stupi, stupid, stupid!

Yuusuke crouched on the floor, second to last drawer of the rack in front of him open and bursting with colours. He held the outfit he’d selected in his hands and was busy hitting his head on the flat wooden surface of the upper drawers. Repeatedly. Why did he have to chicken out at the last moment and spoil the mood?! Why couldn’t he keep up with the flirting the way he had done while talking fashion!? Why couldn’t he look Toudou in the eye and tell him sincerely that yes, he looked exactly like the fucking models Yuusuke had lived among in London!? Not their models, no, they had always strived for another kind of image, but the regular ones, the ones that radiated charisma and life, so naturally dazzling you couldn’t stand to be in their proximity without going blind…

He got up and pushed the drawer closed with his shin, heaving out a sigh and clutching the latex tight. It was probably more an act of self-indulgence than an attempt of selling an old piece, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had no doubts it would have looked…

*

-          …perfect.

Now, compliments were a thing that Toudou would have never turned down, no matter how grumpy he felt at the moment. Especially heartfelt compliments that didn’t sound like indirect insults anymore and stumbled out of his crush’s mouth almost by mistake, thus only confirming their authenticity and what Toudou was already suspecting: he had finally managed to impress his unimpressible object of affection.

That he had achieved it by getting almost naked in said object’s presence and parading around a changing room showing off his butt in skimpy rubber outfits was a forgettable detail.

Now, the thing with that kind of appreciation was: it tended to get to his head. A lot. Especially when he whole-heartedly agreed with them and frankly, just a look at the mirror was enough to assure him that, indeed, ‘perfect’ was the one and only word.

Fairly certain that he had just hit the jackpot with a pair of plain but flattering briefs and a matching sleeveless shirt with a high neck, he allowed himself to strut around the dressing room with a deliberate sway of his hips, turning to admire himself in the mirrors from every direction and using the whole act to give Makishima an eyeful of his toned calves, toned thighs and well defined back.

-          You think, Maki-chan?

-          T-The outfit, I mean.

Toudou narrowed his eyes like a cat, looking straight at Makishima through their reflections, and smiled a mellifluous grin.

-          Of course. What else could you mean?

*

Yuusuke was sweating cold. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but it had slipped anyway and he couldn’t bring himself to care. Why should he had, when it had led him straight into the most delicious hell? He watched Toudou prowl around the dressing room, acting smug like a cat that had just eaten the canary, and suppressed the urge to lick his lips.

“Oh god I have unleashed a monster… - okay, a steaming hot monster, I’ll concede…- …get a grip, Yuusuke! What was that Ren said? Be wary of people more experienced than you, especially in these matters, and this guy here is the epitome of a veteran. Don’t let him fool you into giving him even more power! …on the other hand, I’d kind of like him to have over me all the power he deems fit…”

No. He couldn’t fall now, not without a fight. He couldn’t moon and fall apart at the mere glimpse of a gluteus like a middle-schooler.

“For heaven’s sake, at least let him earn it! …whatever it is that he wants…”

-          So, do you find it more of your taste?

-          I’ll have you know, Maki-chan, this feels wonderful. The indigo one did, too, but this is better… might be the lack of sleeves?

-          I’d think so. How about the collar? Is it too tight?

-          Not really… see? All wrapped up comfortably around my neck.

-          The fabric will adjust in time, anyway.

-          Cool.

-          You still look nit fully convinced. Black is a reasonable compromise, isn’t it? What’s the matter?

Toudou waited a bit before voicing his concerns.

-          …is this the kind of thing you wear?

Yuusuke choked.

-          What?!

-          I’m new to this, alright? And you’re the only person who has admitted to my face to have put on this kind of underwear before. Who am I supposed to ask?

It sounded sultrier than any request from a customer had the right to be.

-          Well… not really. But they’re made of the same material, so it doesn’t make a great difference.

-          Are they supposed to be used normally or is it better to change into them only at… ehr… specific moments?

-          It depends on your own comfort, mostly, but you can use them as a regular change of underwear, of course.

-          No way!

-          Why ask if you don’t want to hear the answer?

-          You mean people walk around in these and act like it’s nothing?

-          I could have a pair on right now and you wouldn’t be the wiser, thank you.

-          …d-do you?

-          I’m not saying.

-          It’s a perfectly reasonable doubt, you know?

-          And my perfectly reasonable advice is: try for yourself.

-          I don’t follow you.

Yuusuke leaned on the wall and studied him seriously.

-          Do you have to wear some kind of uniform at work?

Toudou looked confused, but answered all the same, arms crossed over his chest.

-          Comfortable trousers, trainers and a dark polo shirt? They give them to us, there’s the clinic name and logo embroidered at heart-level.

-          Thought so. Anything underneath?

-          A long-sleeved shirt in winter, but it’s pretty hot in there, so not even that, usually. Can I ask what this is all about?

Yuusuke straightened and pointed vaguely at Toudou, moving his index finger up and down.

-          Wear this during your shift, today.

Toudou’s face went completely white, then completely red, in the span of two and a half seconds.

-          ARE YOU CRAZY?!

-          Not at all. Dark ensemble, full coverage: it’s perfect, actually. You’ll be able to move around like you always do and test the fabric thoroughly.

-          It has a high neck!

-          It barely reaches your Adam’s apple: keep the shirt buttoned and it should be fine. Or wrap a small cloth around your throat, nobody would notice in that case.

-          I never wear that kind of thing inside, it will be suspicious.

-          Tell them you caught a cold. Pretty common with these temperatures.

-          First of all: I don’t catch colds, thank you very much. And second: I’m not lying to my colleagues for the chance of parading around my workplace in inappropriate clothes!

Yuusuke bared his teeth. He was starting to feel offended.

-          Well, first of all: it’s hardly inappropriate if it stays beneath another layer of fully concealing clothes. And second: you shouldn’t feel the necessity to lie in the first place – it’s nobody’s business what kind of undershirt you’re wearing as long as you look decent and respectable in your work environment. I could give you a lycra undershirt far more flashy and tacky than this one, but that would be fine, wouldn’t it?! Even funny! But heavens forbid one feels like trying a latex shirt and keeps it hidden under a buttoned up polo shirt! What if the grannies catch a glimpse of it!?

-          Do you give condescending speeches to all your potential customers just because they disagree with you!?

-          Only to those who’re being unreasonable!

-          Honestly, I could just take everything off and never come back!

-          Indeed, it’s in your rights!

-          You don’t even care to lose a regular client?!

-          I’d rather sell my clothes to people who appreciate them, anyway.

Toudou huffed and closed the curtain with a snarl. Yuusuke growled and leaned on the opposite wall, hugging himself as tight as he could and seething. He was frustrated with Toudou, that was having the chance to broaden his horizons without succumbing to prejudice and was throwing it away, too narrow-minded to open up to fashion and gratifying novelties because of a mindset he apparently shared with the vast majority of the population. 

Now that he thought about it, Yuusuke was not exactly frustrated. More… sad, actually. A bit disillusioned. And weirdly lonely.

*

Toudou was frustrated with Makishima, so over the top with his eccentric lifestyle and downright skewed views and respectability to forget that not everyone was as comfortable as himself at flaunting his decadence and sexual behaviour and… flamboyance! Geez, why had he thought that accepting to try those pants was a good idea? Well, it had been a good idea, at least until they had started arguing, and not in a fun way. He sat down on the velvety pouf inside the dressing room, glancing absent-mindedly at his reflection on the mirror. He liked what he saw. And frankly, it wasn’t that depraved or wild. Just a bit different. If he wore his polo shirt all buttoned up like he usually did in this season, nobody would have noticed anything more than a little black patch at his throat and really, they would have never been able to guess what it was… but what was it, after all? Just an opaque sleeveless shirt that happened to be made of an uncommon material. He scratched his neck and sighed, not feeling so frustrated anymore. Disappointed with himself, maybe, for having destroyed all the progresses made with Makishima until that moment. For believing he could be someone he was definitely not (yet) in the span of a few weeks.

 *

When Toudou exited the changing room, he found Makishima bowing deeply in front of him. He let out an unmanly gasp at the sight. Makishima didn’t meet his eyes.

-          I’m sorry, Toudou-san. It’s not my place to lecture customers about their personal tastes and choices of clothes. It’s not my place to lecture customers, period. Or anybody, for that matter.  Please, do not take offence at my words, but if you do, rightfully so, then blame it on me, personally, and not on the shop. I was not speaking as a shop assistant of Ren’s*Flower, earlier.

Toudou didn’t know what destabilized him the most: Makishima’s words or the sudden lack of… anything in his posture, timbre, expression. It was as if someone had turned Makishima’s switch off, all of a sudden, and it made Toudou feel strangely hollow. And a bit guilty.

-          I’m not offended, Maki-chan. It was fun… not the row, of course not that, but the rest of the discussion. You know what, I think I’ll listen to your advice and spend a day in these.

Makishima looked up and Toudou was not able to read his face.

-          You don’t have to-

-          I’m not saying I’ll do it today. Or at work. But I’ll try to keep them on for some hours and see if they can be something more than a kinky alternative.

Makishima nodded, fingers plucking at the feathers of the boa that he had retrieved in a fit of rage and wore again out of pure spite. Toudou smiled at him warmly.

-          Let’s ring these up, shall we? I really, really need to go, now.

*

Yuusuke nodded again and moved swiftly, although a bit wobbly, towards the hall, taking shelter behind the counter. He felt safer, with a physical barrier between him and Toudou…

-          I feel a bit like I guilt-tripped you into buying it.

*

Toudou sighed.

-          Nonsense. I have eyes: I liked what I saw back inside there. I might not be a hundred percent convinced about wearing latex at work, but I can’t deny it could come in handy in different circumstances.

“There, take it. Now I can go away with what’s left of my dignity intact.”

*

Yuusuke fumbled with his hands, but was able to conceal it. He also chose to ignore the twist in his stomach.

-          Alright, I’m glad to hear it. Anyway, this is still a first for you, and you might decide latex is, after all, not your thing. We have a strict ‘no returns’ policy on any kind of briefs and panties, for obvious reasons, unless they come back with all the labels still attached and a ‘gift’ receipt and it’s clear nobody has put them on. But that won’t be your case, since the whole point of your purchase is to wear them for as long as you deem fit… With such premises, the same could be told for the shirt, but I’m willing to bend the rules a little for that, since it’s an old model and I pushed it onto you: should it not be of your liking, bring it back. You can talk to me directly, I’m here practically all the time, but I’m signing you a couple of lines behind the receipt anyway, should you pass by and find only Ren instead. We don’t give refunds, but we’ll accept the clothes back and make you change them with whatever you like. I can’t do anything for the briefs though, sorry.

-          No, obviously not, I… thank you!

-          Just don’t throw the tags away.

-          I won’t! Thanks a lot, Maki-chan!

 

*

Before he could move and leave the shop with a positive feeling, Makishima gestured for him to wait and Toudou did, eagerly. Could it be that the moment had finally arrived, unannounced, by itself?

*

Yuusuke knew his cheeks were betraying him, but he couldn’t back out.

-          Look, this is all very stupid and I feel like an idiot for going through with it, but the direction gave the order and I have to obey.

Never mind that he was “The Direction” as much as his brother, de facto.

He reached blindly beneath the counter and grabbed a colourful package, slamming it next to Toudou’s bag, looking in the opposite direction.

-          We are making room for new products and these are close to their expiration date, so we’re giving them away with larger purchases as free samples. Congratulations, you reached the minimum sum!

Toudou picked up the package as if it could bite him.

-          Is this…

-          …a candy g-string?

-          Yes.

-          Yes. Well, no, actually, it’s more like a gummy thong, I finished the candy g-strings yesterday morning. Anyway, it’s blueberry, but I have other flavours if you don’t like it an-

-          Blueberry is fine!

-          Really?

-          …it sounded wrong, didn’t it?

It was hard to keep the animosity up with an edible pair of underwear between them. Yuusuke let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding and brought his elbows on the counter.

-          Think of it as a secret.

-          …what?

-          The latex. Think of it as your little secret, when you try it on. It makes wearing it in public much more bearable. And fun, in a totally wicked way.

-          Speaking by experience, Maki-chan?

-          …maybe

-          But you know, it’s not really fun if I’m the only one knowing about it.

-          Then call it our little secret. Pass-by and tell me how it went, afterwards.

*

Toudou’s heart was hammering into his chest. It was now or never. He leaned towards Makishima and flashed the sultriest smile he could master with adrenaline pumping wildly through his veins.

-          Say, Maki-chan… you never really answered my question back there. Are you so passionate about this whole latex ordeal because it is what you wear every day?

*

Yuusuke gritted his teeth and tensed, even if his knees had turned into jelly. He had the not so little urge to answer with something on the lines of “Actually, I’m passionate because this is my life and I’ve designed pretty much every single piece of clothing in this shop”, but he doubted Toudou wanted to hear that… thus, he threw caution to the wind and mirrored Toudou’s position, moves and tone.

-          Why don’t you try your pretty things, spend a day in them, make up your mind, come back to tell me and then I’ll answer all your questions?

*

Makishima smirked.

-          Deal?

Toudou swallowed loudly. And hoped his own grin wasn’t shaking too much.

-          Deal. Deal, Maki-chan. And you’d better prepare yourself, because you promised, Maki-chan! All my questions! And I’ll leave you speechless!

*

Yuusuke waved at him as Toudou laughed his way out of the shop, the sound mingling with the twinkling of the bell above the door.

-          I have no doubt.

***

A continent away, Ren’s phone chirped the arrival of a message. It was that awkward hour of the night at which is far too late to go to bed, but also far too early to rise. Thus, Ren was working and the notification gave him an excuse for a five-minutes break. With a stretch, he grabbed the device and stifled a yawn at the screen, frowned at it and finally raised a brow at the text.

-          What the hell, Yuusuke?

Shaking his head, he threw the phone on the small armchair at his left and tried not to question too much his decision of leaving his nuisance of a little brother alone for two weeks.

“Send you some ideas 4 spring l8r. Headband was here: you’d be so proud of me rn! <3<3<3”

***

 

Toudou wasn’t feeling extremely proud of himself, at the moment.

Well, on one hand he did, because he had taken a strong decision for himself, going against his fear of the unknown, and it was paying off. On the other hand, though, the ride home (necessary to blow the steam off) and the debacle in front of the full-length mirror in his bedroom had robbed him of the little spare time he’d had left, so he had been forced to grab a quick lunch on his way (by train) to the clinic, much to his chagrin. Bad eating habits ranked very high on his personal black list.

He walked past the sliding doors of his workplace throwing a longing glance at his usual parking spot, missing his bike and still feeling guilty (and a bit nauseous) about the amount of calories he had swallowed with the processed, stale food bought at the convenience store. All of a sudden, the tiny speck of rubber barely visible from its collar didn’t seem completely worth it.

His boss, a short and lean woman with a black bob-cut and eyebrows so neat they could have been drawn with a brush (they weren’t), greeted him at the entrance.

-          Toudou-kun! Sorry for the inconvenience! We’ll make it up to you, I promise.

-          It’s alright, Ueda-san! It was an emergency, after all.

Her eyes were sharp and hard as steel, and Toudou had the awful feeling that they were lingering at his throat.

-          …you don’t usually come here already in your uniform, Touduo-kun.

Yes, well, usually he wouldn’t have had to hide from his colleagues as he changed in the staff room.

-          It was a busy morning, I feared I could run late and left like this.

She looked like she’d bought the lie, because her smile was friendly.

-          Sorry again for the short notice. You know, I like the way you buttoned up the collar, right to the top. Keep it like this, if you feel like it.

Toudou thought it made him look like a vicar, but he couldn’t afford the luxury of antagonizing her without revealing too much, so he nodded in agreement and got ready for the first appointment.

There it was, the thrill of doing something so very unexpected of him, the excitement of keeping it a secret, the shivers running through his body at every rub of the latex onto his skin. Maybe, just maybe, he was starting to understand the wicked way in which Makishima’s brain worked: it was an addictive sensation, all in all. So much that he could almost feel the tingle of it down to his navel, spreading like heat.

The fact was: the more he moved around the clinic, the more he worked with patients, the more he grew comfortable with the idea of wearing latex in the middle of a crowded place while helping a kid getting used to her first pair of crutches and easing the back-pains of a giggling granny - the more that heat got strong. At one point, way past the middle of the afternoon, a busy time of the day, it had almost become unbearable, the itch bordering on physical discomfort and making him restless against his better judgement. He could not voice his displeasure, just mask it behind one of those famous smiles of his and ride the wave until it passed. Perhaps he should have tried it again at home, the next time, to get used to the friction before risking being overwhelmed by it in public. Still, the sense of victory was going to his head and he was definitely looking forward to his next meeting with Makishima. He would have had so much to tell him, so many sensations to describe in detail… he was already set on asking as many questions as he could, already prepared to finally (finally) find some common ground to start from and bring whatever relationship they had to the next level.

Now, if only his body could behave for less than another hour he could have gone home and declared it a success but no, the burning feeling was only growing stronger and he was sure his pants (and everything beneath) were on fire and he had the urge to run his hands all over his abdomen, and chest, and back, and up to his neck and wasn’t it weird, the way he absent-mindedly started to scratch at his waist and left pectoral and… and…

*

Sawako Inoue was a petite, blonde thing with big round eyes and a high ponytail. Her voice, always so sweet and high-pitched, fell over Toudou’s head like a bucket of ice-cold water.

-          Toudou-kun,,, what is that thing on your neck?

-          W-What?

Unfortunately, it did nothing to the ever-growing blaze under his clothes.

-          I think we’d better call the paramedics. Or bring you to the hospital. Like, right now.

Toudou stared, wide-eyed and bewildered, at her retreating form, watched her call their colleagues for help with a hint of panic in her voice – and when they all came, Ueda-san in tow, and looked at him, he could see identical, slightly horrified expressions on their faces. Funny, they almost look concerned and-

…and he caught a glimpse of himself on the reflecting glass of a window.

There were huge, ugly patches of reddened, irritated skin trailing angrily up to his throat. And they were only growing bigger and more swollen as he stared.

***

Arakita was too old, too tired, too done with all that shit to care about being gracious about it.

He had already run out of patience with the effort of not snapping at the receptionist and nurse he’d asked for information. Fuck, he hated hospitals.

He entered the room and threw the bag with the change of clothes at Toudou’s feet, ignoring the puffy red eyes and quiet sniffle of his friend, and the way Toudou wouldn’t look at him, not even to glare in disapproval.

-          Twenty-three years, Toudou. Twenty-fucking-three years and you just happen to not know you’re bloody damn allergic to latex, of all things?!

Toudou did glare at that, but still didn’t speak. He just narrowed his eyes and curled on the uncomfortable plastic chair, hugging the hospital gown they’d put him in more tightly around himself. His skin was still red, but the wheals were retreating and it was evident that they had practically bathed him in salve. Toudou made such a pitiful image that Arakita didn’t really have the heart to be a dick about it. Not yet, at least. It wouldn’t even have been funny.

He sat down beside Toudou (shit, those chairs were a nightmare) and nodded at the bag at their feet.

-          I wanted to make it quick, so I didn’t stop at your place. Brought you a pair of Shinkai’s old sweats and a loose t-shirt of his: baggy stuff that you can spatter with ointments all you want, it’s not like he hasn’t already done it with sauce or chocolate syrup, anyway.

Toudou nodded. Arakita didn’t know what to make of it.

-          …so? Wanna get changed? That thing they lent you is fucking awful.

Toudou grabbed the bag and got up with a haughty sniff, disappearing behind a curtain.

Arakita looked around and finally noticed the offending garments that had been the cause of all that ruckus. He hadn’t really understood much from the tear-filled, panic-induced phone call Toudou had given him from the hospital: just that he needed to be picked up, possibly with a change of clothes because he had just learned he was allergic to something and didn’t want to risk another crisis. He had specifically demanded cotton clothes, in between sobs, and Arakita had got suspicious enough at that to wrestle the rest of the story out of him. The major plot points, at least.

He regarded the underwear in front of him with a raised brow: nothing he had not already seen, probably the most vanilla-model a shop like that could sell, but still uncharacteristically kinky, for Mr Prude Headband.

Well, Mr Prude Headband had also chained himself to the bed and got stuck on a butt plug, lately, so maybe, all things considered, this wasn’t even the most embarrassing situation to be found in…

Arakita turned around at the sound of Toudou clearing his throat and coming out of the curtain, still looking terribly upset and literally swimming in Shinkai’s clothes, but at least he had got back some resemblance of dignity. Enough forArakita to test the waters a bit, at least.

-          …still high on antihistamine?

Toudou growled and shook his head.

-          Just a pill. It was all salve.

He grabbed a sheet of paper from the chair he was sitting on before and waved it in front of Arakita, who took it and scrolled through it for the little time it took him to make out the names of a couple of medications and the doctor’s advice on how to treat the offended skin in the aftermath of allergic contact dermatitis.

He knew Toudou was out of his mind. It had never stopped Arakita, though.

-          Honestly, how is it even possible for you to not know about this fucking kryptonite of yours?! You’re a physiotherapist!

-          So what.

-          Gloves! How did you even survive for twenty-three years without putting on a pair of latex gloves!

-          Putting on latex-free gloves! Like the ones they’ve been giving us since day one at school and at work to… to…

-          To…?

-          …to avoid all the complications and issues that might have come with potentially allergic people.

Toudou seemed determined to sniffle through the evening. Arakita didn’t want any of it.

-          How come your dick hasn’t come off?

Toudou squeaked in pure indignation and his voice raised an octave. Or two.

-          I can’t believe we’re talking about m-

-          Condoms, moron! That rubber shit is in condoms, too. Wouldn’t you have noticed if your dick or your ass were on fire?! God, why couldn’t it be your tongue?!

He was shut up by a small package colliding with his face: Toudou had taken it out of his own bag and threw it at him. It was a box of latex-free condoms.

-          I’ve used these the first time by sheer chance and kept them. They’re comfortable.

-          And you never considered that you might have been intolerant to the substance?

Toudou got angrier at that.

-          Would you have done?! I used that stuff out of habit, for fuck’s sake!

He slumped on the chair again, taking his head in his hands. Arakita sensed that something was very wrong.

-          Look, it’s not the end of the world, okay? Definitely not funny, with the itching and everything, but nothing that you won’t be able to laugh off in a couple of w-

Toudou exploded.

-          The whole fucking rehab centre saw me into that thing! My boss, my colleagues, my patients and even my patients’ relatives! I’m going back in two days to a place where people think I’m so much into BSDM that I have to look like a deviant in public!

-          Now, that’s offensive to everyone into BSDM…

-          And I have no excuse to give them, because I can’t tell them that I put up with that shit only because I had bargained a date with Maki-chan for it!

-          Wait, what?

-          And now I can’t even go see Maki-chan, because not only I don’t have anything good or sexy to tell him about my marvellous experience wearing latex, but I’m going  to look like a bloody monster for weeks and I can’t let him know what a freaking lame loser I am, not after today!

-          Toudou, I’m pretty sure this would make a funny break-the-ice kind of story…

-          I don’t need a funny break-the-ice kind of story! I needed a positive outcome to this latex business, so that I could use it to seduce him! What am I going to do now? Walk into the shop in a couple of days, lead him on so that he’s all ready to strap a collar around my neck and then tell him than nope, better not, you see, the last time I put that shit on my skin I found myself in the E.R. with salve between my ass-cheeks?!

-          You’ve got salve between your ass-cheeks?

-          They were latex briefs, Arakita. I have salve everywhere.

-          Not sexy.

-          No. Not sexy at all.

They stayed silent for a while, lost in their own thoughts. Toudou spoke again, quietly.

-          It’s not fair.

-          Mh?

-          I was… we were… we had fun today. Nevermind his buff boyfriends or whoever they were… we’ve been alone in the shop for some time before lunch. It was nice. In fact, it was so nice that we flirted our way into a date of sort. He’s waiting for me to go back, this time! He’s counting on me to go back with my latex ensemble, full of wonder and ready to fuck him on the counter while wearing it! Or while he’s wearing it, I’m not sure. Point is: I can’t go for that right now, especially not until I’m covered in red blotches, but I can’t even disappear for a month and then go back pretending nothing happened!

He sighed, and it was a defeated sound.

-          If I want a chance with him, I have to go now. But I can’t go now, not without making a fool of myself anyway. It’s over. It’s… fucking over. But… but it’s not fair…

There was a soft noise in the background, like hands rustling and searching through a bag, then the sharp sound of wrapping being torn open and finally Toudou was offered a piece of blue gum. He accepted it without even questioning what it was. The string smelled strongly of confectionery, an artificial, cheap flavour he would have found revolting in any other circumstance. Only when he glanced at Arakita to ask him about the candy and saw him tearing at another string with his teeth, he realized. And groaned. Arakita smirked, the gum hanging from the corner of his mouth.

-          What? You haven’t put this on too, didn’t you?

Toudou blushed.

-          Of course I didn’t. Geex.

-          Than shut up and suck it. Candy is candy. Here, you can have the crotch pad as well.

-          That’s very generous of you, considering it’s my gummy thong you’re talking about.

-          You do know you can buy your candies in sweet shops and practically in every supermarket in existence? They sell the sugar-free ones as well, it’s amazing…

-          Very funny. They were giving them away for free with larger purchases.

-          Don’t fucking tell Shinkai. It might give him ideas.

Toudou made a face, and they spent several minutes in companionable silence, munching and chewing on the gummy strings. Toudou didn’t feel like thanking Arakita much, but he couldn’t deny that it had helped, just a little.

-          You know what sucks the most? I liked it. The underwear, I mean. It felt nice, I looked so damn cool, I was ready to go back and try this with him! I was… eager, and he had even flirted so blatantly with me and now I’m stuck with wheals for who knows how long.

-          You could tell him that.

-          Yeah, can you imagine? “Ehi there, babe, I’ve just come back to tell you that I adored the way that rubber clung to my ass, but we’d better keep it as far from my junk as possible, unless you’re into blisters, that is. Oh, and do you mind turning around while we fuck and avoid to touch me altogether? I don’t think you want to stare at my spotted prick. Actually, let’s just hope I can get it up at all…”. Very smart. A guaranteed success.

-          Life’s a total bitch sometimes.

-          Dirty bitch indeed.

And then Arakita’s arm was around his shoulders, and Toudou found himself leaning onto him as his eyes blurred again. Surprisingly, he felt Arakita’s head over his own, which only made him sniff harder.

-          Listen, I’m only going to say this once: you deserve better than all this trouble. You have made a huge effort to go get the guy you wanted, and that’s awesome, I respect that and you’ve challenged yourself and learned lots of things about your preferences. I understand that you might want to fall in love and I can see that you were really into this weird Christmas tree of yours. But the universe is kinda sending you messages that are starting to get harder and harder to ignore. And you’re livelier, yes, but also far more stressed than I’ve ever seen you in a long time, and I was there when you graduated. So, have you considered… stepping back a little?

-          You mean giving up on Maki-chan?

-          I mean cooling your head a little. Yeah, it seemed a great opportunity, I’ll give you that, but was it, really? Were you really that ready to jump on him, after all you’ve learned so far? I don’t know… from all the shit you’ve been telling me, I don’t think this Makishima bloke sounds like the right one for you, despite how hot he is.

Toudou sighed, though it came out more as a shudder.

-          But… we clicked, Arakita. I know it’s hard to believe from all the stories you’ve heard, but I understood it this morning. We’re good. I like talking to him. I like bickering with him about stupid topics and yes, I like flirting with him. I have the feeling he likes it too.

-          Then get back on track, wait until your prick is healthy and alert again and go see him when you’re ready for real.

-          He’ll jump on another dozen of dicks in the meantime…

-          Then you’ll have the chance to be the thirteenth and, possibly, the last.

-          He won’t want to have anything to do with me at that point.

-          If he’s so friendly with you, maybe he will. It’s not like you have a choice, after all.

-          Thank you.

Just like that, the moment of closure had passed.

-          Ehi, can you even ride a bike with that ass?

-          What!? Of course I can! What the hell is this about!?

-          The Amateur Spring Race, moron! You know me and Shinkai need a climber! Fuku’s going to be there, too.

-          You mean like the old times?

-          Hell yeah. And just like the old times, I want that trophy in our living room, so you’d better do your part and destroy all those pathetic little shits that dare to dream about taking the mountain checkpoint before you.

-          I’m the God of the Mountain, the only thing they’ll do before me is kneel.

-          That’s my Forest Ninja.

-          I’ve told you it’s Sleeping Beauty!

***

-          What do you want to do with the rubber?

Toudou squinted his eyes at the discarded underwear, still offended and betrayed.

-          Take it. I don’t care what you do with it, but I don’t want it anywhere near me.

-          Roger.

***

It wasn’t until days later that the topic was brought up again, in the form of Arakita passing Toudou a discreet number of bills, neatly stashed, over lunch.

-          What’s this?

-          Your share.

-          My share of what.

-          Of the money I got reselling that rubber thing.

-          What? But it was used!

-          Exactly.

Toudou froze, salad suspended in mid-air precariously and mouth hanging open. Arakita leaned closer.

-          You have no idea how many people are into that shit, if you know where to look.

-          Why do you know where to look!?

Arakita threw an olive in the air and caught it in his mouth with ease.

-          Toudou, with the job I do, there’s nothing I don’t know where to look for.

Toudou pushed the money back towards him.

-          I don’t want that.

-          Considering the prices of their brand, you might consider accepting it.

Toudou eyed the bills.

-          Arakita.

-          Mh?

-          This is way more than what I spent in the first place.

Arakita grinned maniacally, a wolf high on the blood of his prey, and touched their glasses together.

-          You wouldn’t believe how loaded these fuckers are!

Chapter Text

Ren slang the rag over his shoulder.

-          Stop pouting.

-          …I’m not pouting.

-          Stop pining, then.

-          I’m not.

-          You’ve done nothing but stare into space and sigh at the door for days. I know pining when I see it.

Yuusuke turned towards Ren and blurted it out, because frankly, he was starting to get tired of the situation too.

-          He didn’t come back!

Ren faked ignorance.

-          Who didn’t?

-          The headb-… Toudou. Toudou didn’t.

Ren put the last price tag on a box and stood up, leaning on a shelf with his arms crossed over his chest. He had been back for little more than a week and they had been so busy with working simultaneously on their two brands that there had been little time to talk. Although Yuusuke had seemed a bit oversensitive about the latex initiative for spring (great idea, by the way: the brat was a downright genius when he put his mind on it), perhaps it was time for a brotherly chat.

-          …want to tell me about it?

Yuusuke’s first reaction was to shake his head and keep working, but thirty seconds of useless dusting with Ren’s eyes piercing through his back were enough to make him drop the feathery duster, sit on the floor with his knees under his chin and spill everything. Yeah, maybe a talk was long overdue: he had updated Tadokoro and Kinjou, of course – it was unavoidable, they saw each other every day to train for the upcoming race, and they were friends – but they weren’t the same as Ren, who had a far better grasp of the situation, if only because he worked in Yuusuke’s same field. And had the little advantage of being Yuusuke’s older brother and having stuck to his side while London happened.

-          What’s wrong, pup?

Yuusuke stared in front of him and Ren, that recognized the signs when he saw them, sat beside him and waited for the words to come. It was a funny story, at least at the beginning, and they chuckled together at the absurdity of some parts of it.  Until, at one point, something out of Yuusuke’s reach had evidently gone wrong, because more than two weeks had passed and Toudou Jinpachi, Flirt Extraordinaire who had apparently shown quite the interest in Yuusuke’s choice of underwear, seemed to have disappeared from the face of Earth.

-          …am I being an oblivious little shit again or is he really acting like a douche for once? I mean… it can’t be because he didn’t like the latex: I offered him a refund!

Ren sighed and tilted his head back until it touched the wall.

-          Want to know my honest opinion?

-          Not really, but I have the feeling that I’ll have to, anyway.

-          He’s not that much into you.

Yuusuke nodded with an unsurprised grin, but resumed his curled up position, evidently troubled. Ren went on.

-          It sounds like he is, from all the things you told me, but let’s face it: you two parted with what sounded like the promise of very good things to come, but he hasn’t shown his face in ages. I mean, I understand being busy and having a life, whatever fits you best, but showing that level of interest only to vanish without a word is pretty telling, in my opinion. Even if he wanted a refund, it’s too late now, since we cover for ten days. Even if his interest was merely for our products, he had the means to contact us and explain his eventual issues. On the other hand, if he was, indeed, here for you, then sorry, babe, but a guy that wants a piece of ass doesn’t show off in latex and ask you about your knickers only to disappear without a word. Job or not job.

-          What if something happened to him?

-          Possible, of course, but improbable. Unlucky in any case.

Yuusuke stared in front of him, lips pressed against his knees.

-          Where did I go wrong?

Ren took a deep breath and put an arm around his shoulders.

-          The thing is, Yuu: you didn’t. You played the game nicely, all things considered. But this is the kind of game that requires two players, you know, and you can’t really force anyone into it, not even yourself. He decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and called it quits. Happens all the time, even to the best of us.

He caught Yuusuke’s wince with the corner of his eye and cursed at his poor choice of words.

-          It doesn’t mean you’re not worth it, alright? Just that the two of you are not that great of a match, and it’s nobody’s fault.

Yuusuke nodded and Ren could see him understanding the logic behind it, but logic could not stop the hurt that came with feeling rejected, even if on such a superficial level. And heavens knew Yuusuke had already experienced enough rejection as it was.

-          I liked him.

It came out in a small voice and it was disarming in its simplicity, though at the same time it held all the meaning. For the first time in years, Ren felt really bad for his brother, in a purely emotional way. He searched for the right words, but Yuusuke kept talking.

-          I know it’s silly. We saw each other for what? Three times? Four? But I liked him. And those last two times had felt… different. Like we were moving forward, somehow. You know, even if it always ended up with me selling him some kind of sex toy once a month, it was nice. Like… I never doubted he would have come back, at some point. And when you were gone, and we spent time together… he agreed to come back! I was… looking forward to it.

He felt a pull at the side of his neck and Ren brought their heads together.

-          I know. I believe you. It’s not stupid to have an innocent crush on someone and grow fond of them. It’s just… sometimes things don’t work out the way we’d want them to. I can tell that you really wanted to try with this one, but… is it even worth it? Because yes, you’ve been livelier and, I don’t know, lighter, lately – and you sent in projects and designs like we haven’t seen from you in a while – and I really loved the fact that you were willing to question yourself and come out of your shell, but it’s getting out of hand and, above all, it’s not making you happy. I believe it when you say the two of you have fun chatting and enjoy each other’s company, but I also see how stressful this whole ordeal is for you, especially since he has started sending opposite messages and you’ve got moody over it. In my opinion, the situation calls for a wake-up call: when and if he walks through the front door again, either you ask for his number and tell him that at least once you’d like to go out with him properly (and please, listen to me about this: if he accepts, don’t have sex with him right away), or you send him his way without a second glance. If he doesn’t come back at all, the decision would be already taken. Sucks that it won’t come from you, but gives you the right to vent about him being an asshole.

Yuusuke didn’t seem to like neither of those options.

-          There are lots of people in this world, Yuu. Don’t get stuck to the first pretty face that strikes your fancy. Ugh, that sounded pretty awful, sorry. It’s an important truth, though. You will always end up hurting yourself, otherwise.

Yuusuke grimaced.

-          Easy for you to say.

Ren frowned at him. His brother looked apologetic, yet still irked.

-          Ren, I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but you’re getting married in a few years. Even if you don’t, you’ve been with Sarah for ages now. And it isn’t like there wasn’t anyone else before her. I understand what you mean when you say that the sea is full of fish, that all in all this is no big deal, but… it is, for me? I mean, I’m… I’m not the kind of guy people get head over heels for. When did a fling or crush ever worked out for more than a few passing moments? It didn’t when I was a teen struggling with his identity, it didn’t when I was myself without reservations, it didn’t when I attempted to be slightly different, a bit more “normal”… how am I supposed to believe that there’s actually someone out there for me, after all? That the world is full of chances and possibilities? Come on…

Ren opened his mouth to speak but didn’t manage.

-          You know what’s worse? I… I hoped it could work. I was starting to believe that it could work. I wanted it to work. I would have liked to go out with him and yes, without being dragged to bed at the first date. Shit.

Ren said nothing and just kissed his temple.

-          I was fine, before. I had accepted my… condition, or whatever you want to call it. I was okay with being alone and staying so but he… he…

-          He made you hope.

-          Yes.

-          And now…

-          …now all of a sudden everything feels so fucking sad.

There wasn’t much to add, or even to say in the first place.

-          You do know I love you, right?

-          Yeah, I know.

-          So do mum and dad, though they aren’t exactly an affectionate lot. Yoko adores you, and then there is Sarah as well, and all the guys in our little company. Tadokoro and Kinjou, and those kids you biked with, and then-

Yuusuke looked at him with a raised brow.

-          …what I mean is that you’re not alone. No matter what.

Yuusuke nodded.

-          Yeah. It’s just been a while since I last felt lonely.

-          …what if I double your shifts, you know, to take care your mind off these things?

Yuusuke elbowed him in the ribs.

-          I already work all the shifts, you damn slaver!

-          Ugh. I hope they’re paying you enough, at least.

-          Shut up – Yuusuke said, but he was chuckling. Ren got on his feet and extended a hand to help his brother up.

-          I don’t know if I’m doing right by telling you this, but… you know he could have had more pressing matters and only be late

Yuusuke stared back with a little, sad smile and the air of someone much older, someone that knew far, far better. In a sense, he did.

-          Ren, you know better than me that Toudou Jinpachi is not going to cross that door anymore. Not for me, at least. I’ll make sure to remember it if I ever happen to stumble upon him again.

Ren didn’t like the lack of light in his eyes, but bitter disappointment and rejection did that to a person, especially one with a waste land for a past, like Yuusuke. Had there been a way to spare his brother some of that pain, he would have, but it was, unfortunately, something Yuusuke had to face and deal with by himself, like he had always done. Ren could only be a source of support.

-          That new dye does wonders to your hair, by the way. You look great today.

Yuusuke sent him a lop-sided smirk with a confident twinkle in his eyes.

-          You don’t have to throw compliments around to make me feel better, you know.

-          Of course. In fact, it’s because I mean it. It’s gorgeous.

-          Thanks. I know.

They went back to their chores and were working back to back when Yuusuke spoke again, his voice low but steady.

-          Actually, about that topic… Ren?

-          Yes?

He turned to face Yuusuke and was unsettled by his stance and posture, not to mention his expression: straight as a rod, solid as a rock on his feet, seemingly carved out of stone and eyes on fire. He was the same old Yuusuke of every day, sixty-two kilos of lean muscles, bones and hair, mostly – but he had the air of a volcano ready to erupt. What exactly, Ren wasn’t sure of.

-          The new ad campaign we talked about. I think I want to do it.

Ren Makishima beamed.

***

-          Pass me the soy sauce, Yasutomo, will you?

-          Go easy with it. I don’t want to fish my dinner again.

-          I know. That’s why I already took out your portion and filled your plate. It’s on your right. I’m finishing this for myself and then we can dig in.

Arakita’s snarl turned into a small pout and he thought Shinkai’s consideration deserved a friendly nip at the shoulder, so he closed his teeth affectionately on Shinkai’s deltoid and let go immediately, grabbing his plate and carrying it to the table. Sasha made the simple task a stressful one by throwing herself at Arakita’s ankles, curling around them and purring loudly.

-          You have already eaten, you glutton! Go play with your friend, come on!

In fact, Usakicchi was, for once, out of the cage and she was staring at them from the kitchen door.

-          I think Sasha is still offended, Yasutomo.

Arakita eyed the huge cat with a raised brow.

-          Are you, now? Because you know, you are the one that started it, missy: you can’t go around smacking your pals with that fluffy tail of yours and then get mad when they have enough.

Sasha meowed, sounding extremely displeased. Arakita stared at her sternly.

-          You started shit, you fix it: go!

He watched as the cat walked away from his, slowly, and passed the kitchen door, heading for the living room without sparing Usakicchi a single look. The rabit blinked and moved her ears, then hopped away in the same direction. Arakita turned towards Shinkai, who was sitting down.

-          Do you think they’ll be okay?

Shinkai’s chopsticks were already in the bowl of soup.

-          Of course, Yasutomo: I talked to Usakicchi earlier. Let them sort this out by themselves and relax, it’s time to eat.

Arakita did and swallowed his first bite hungrily. It was exactly as he liked it and they had dinner in companionable silence. For a few minutes, at least, but still enough for Arakita to forget about their pets’ quarrel (the lack of alarming noises coming from the living-room seemed promising enough) and focused on Shinkai, in front of him.

-          How did the training go, today?

Shinkai took his time to answer, chewing thoroughly before opening his mouth to speak.

-          Well, I think. We completed the route in a good time: I think Jinpachi has got a little better in flats, but you really won’t want to wait for me on hills – just go ahead and leave me behind.

-          It’s all those muscles’ fault.

-          So is my awesome sprinting record.

-          Still, it would be nice to, you know, finish a fucking race together, every now and then.

Shinkai stopped drinking his broth and lowered the bowl.

-          That’s unusually sweet of you, Yasutomo.

Arakita made a show of hiding his blush behind his own bowl of soup. Shinkai didn’t bat an eye at the ridiculous behaviour and just went on.

-          I think Jinpachi is sad.

Arakita came back to his senses, still red as a tomato but ready to blame it on the hot broth.

-          Uh?

-          Jinpachi. He’s his usual self, but at the same time… he isn’t.

Arakita put an elbow on the table and leaned his chin on his hand. With the other, he toyed absent-mindedly with the rim of the now empty bowl.

-          Still pining over the sex-freak?

-          Yeah, though he doesn’t really want to admit it. I think he was genuinely interested to this guy.

-          He was.

-          He hasn’t gone out with anyone after the last accident, you know.

Arakita nodded. Shinkai kept talking in between the bites.

-          I think he’s ready to settle down.

-          He’s been ready to settle down for a while. Maybe from the start…

Shinkai smiled in agreement.

-          Popularity has always agreed with him, yes. It suits him: he’s handsome and easy-going…

-          …petulant, whiny and a fucking drama-princess.

-          You mean a drama queen?

-          No, that title would give him too much credit.

Shinkai chuckled despite himself.

-          …the point is: he’s never been only that, but how many people have bothered enough to check what was under the pretty face?

-          A couple. It didn’t end well, if I remember correctly.

-          Yeah, and now he doesn’t even feel like taking advantage of his popularity anymore.

-          And he’s fallen for a stranger way out of his league. A foreign concept for that vapid brain of his.

-          He said that the day of the latex they were ready for a date.

-          Yeah, but let’s face it, Shinkai: they would have fucked sooner or later and it would have probably been awesome, I don’t deny it, but it couldn’t have lasted. They are too different and Toudou wants something serious and lasting. You can’t start something like that looking for a shag pretending to be someone you’re not.

-          Did you tell him all this?

-          No need to, he knows.

-          That would explain the sulkiness.

Arakita moved the leftover vegetables in his soup around with his chopsticks. Shinkai mused.

-          Is there anything we can do for him, Yasutomo?

-          We already pick up the pieces and refrain him from drinking cyanide – oh don’t look at me like that, you know he wouldn’t be able to resist its drama. You took a butt-plug out of his ass, that’s a testament to true friendship.

-          We could introduce him to someone.

-          Then what? Start a column at the local paper to help all the poor unfortunate souls out there mend their aching hearts?

-          I could call myself Madame Puddifoot!

-          I’m pretty sure you took it from a book or something.

-          You’re just bitter because you haven’t thought of it first. You can be Mister Marrywell, by the way.

-          Don’t drag me into this.

-          Who do we know that is more or less our age, single and Jinpachi’s type?

-          I don’t know, that’s your area of expertise. …someone from your gym crew?

-          Well, there’s Jin-kun: the sprinter I told you about. He’s cool and very pleasurable company.

-          You only love him because of the food he brings. Tch. Kindred spirits if I ever saw a pair…

-          Still, they might get along.

-          I don’t remember Jinpachi being into baras.

-          More importantly, now that I think about it, I believe Jin-kun is straight.

-          That would definitely be a problem, yes.

-          Perhaps he has a friend or someone that could do the job. I can ask.

-          Tell him we need a quiet guy with lots of patience. A kind one. Possibly attractive. Make him a seven on a zero to ten scale, at the very least.

-          You really have thought this through, haven’t you, Yasutomo?

Arakita shrugged.

-          I might have considered sending word to Kin-chan as well.

-          Speaking of Kinjou, he’s coming to the race, isn’t he?

-          Of course he is. That’s why I wanted to call him, it might be a good occasion to make Toudou meet new people: you know, post-race bonding, Fuku-chan’s coming to see…

-          Jin-kun wanted to sign up too! I can suggest the same!

They touched their glasses together in a silent toast.

-          Let’s get Jinpachi a boyfriend.

-          I would be satisfied with getting him laid again, for the time being, but let’s see how far we can push this.

An angry hiss came from the living-room and Sasha dashed through the kitchen door, jumping straight onto Arakita’s lap. Usakicchi was at her heels, chasing her. Shinkai looked at the bunny lovingly, Arakita tried in vain to calm Sasha down.

-          What the hell are you feeding that rabbit, Shinkai!?

Shinkai made a gun with his hand, pointing it at Usakicchi and mimicking a shot.

-          The heart and soul of her enemies, of course.

Usakicchi hopped away. Arakita pressed his fingers into Sasha’s fur and was not surprised to feel her shaking. All of a sudden, he kind of did, too.

*

-          Where’s Makishima?

Tadokoro passed Kinjou a plate of yakisoba and sat down in front of him, grabbing his chopsticks.

-          Locked with his brother into their office, brainstorming about the new ad-campaign. Said they have great projects…

-          I see.

-          At least that’s what I understood: you know how he gets under pressure. I could make out a word out of three. Oh, by the way, I put extra green laver in yours.

-          Thank you. For having me for lunch, as well.

Tadokoro made a wide motion with his hand.

-          Nah, don’t say it. What’s another bunch of noodles when you’re already feeding our lot? Besides, they’re all away today, I can use some company.

-          Still, sorry for imposing.

-          I invited you!

They enjoyed their meal for a while, without speaking, until Tadokoro slowed down enough to talk.

-          So, is Fukutomi really coming to the race?

A small smile tugged at Kinjous’ lips, despite his efforts to hide it.

-          Yes. Not as a participant, though. He can’t sign up for races in the amateurish circle, it’s against the rules. And I think it violates his contract too.

-          Still, we can spend some time together after the race!

-          Of course, but you don’t have to force yourself, Tadokoro: Juichi holds no hard feelings towards you, no matter how hard you punched him years ago.

Tadokoro cleared his throat, clearly embarrassed.

-          H-He deserved that.

-          That’s what he says as well. No need to try so hard: it’s good.

-          But wouldn’t you like all of us to have lunch together once the race is over=

It was Kinjou’s turn to stutter, although he had always been better at catching himself quickly.

-          …of course.

-          Then I don’t see the problem! The more, the merrier!

Kinjou munched on a mouthful of noodles.

-          I was thinking about Arakita and his team. He called me the other day, Juichi keeps in touch with him too. From what I understood, Arakita’s boyfriend is the sprinter of their team and another old friend of Juichi…

-          Is it that Shinkai guy? The one with the red hair?

-          Might be… do you know him?

-          We work out at the same gym. And we raced, sometimes. Awesome sprinter, got the thighs for it. He’s a nice one.

-          Then I see no trouble in going out together, our two teams and Juichi.

-          Yeah, it might even come in handy…

Kinjou looked up from his plate, an eyebrow raised?

-          What do you mean?

Tadokoro took his time finishing his own yakisoba and then paused before getting seconds.

-          Shinkai told me that they have this climber on their team, sounds like a normal person, as far as climbers go, of course. It seems he’s gone through a bit of a rough time, lately, a hard hit on the romantic department, if you know what I mean. Got involved with a man-eater that destroyed his self-confidence or something like that. Anyway, Shinkai asked me if I knew anyone we could introduce him to, a nice, quiet guy he could bond with to take him mind off his problems…

Kinjou looked pensive.

-          You know, Arakita told me something similar over the phone. I believe they were talking about the same person.

-          It’s very likely. The thing is… we do know a nice, quiet guy who’s also a climbing-junkie and could use a distraction from his love affairs…

-          I don’t think Makishima will take it very well. Us setting him up with a stranger. He made it pretty clear, last time.

Tadokoro nodded.

-          You’re right, but we are not setting him up this time, are we? We are taking him out for lunch with our friends and your boyfriend after a race and there happens to be another lonely guy like him and with whom he shares at least one interest… it’s not like we’re telling them to hook up right there right now.

-          You have a point.

-          I mean, worst case scenario, they don’t get along and talk with the rest of us instead of each other. Then we go home and they never see each other again, period.

-          But if they do get along…

-          …then Makishima gains another acquaintance, at the very least. Which can do him no harm, as long as this guy behaves – and why shouldn’t he?

Kinjou nodded, still thoughtful.

-          Is Makishima alright?

Tadokoro shrugged with a low grunt.

-          He says he is, but you know him.

Kinjou helped himself to another serving of yakisoba. Tadokoro eyed him proudly.

-          The thing with his customer hit him hard, then.

-          Well, nobody likes acting on a crush and have their hopes shot down.

-          Did he have hopes to be shot down?

-          Again, he’d probably tell us that no, he didn’t, but that wouldn’t make it any less false.

Kinjou agreed, his mouth full. Then he swallowed and resumed the discussion.

-          What was that guy like, by the way?

Tadokoro raised his eyebrows.

-          You tell me: I haven’t seen him at all.

-          I meant personality-wise. I can’t deny he was extremely handsome. Definitely not my type, but as conventionally attractive as someone can be.

-          Yes, well, no offense Kinjou but, given your history, anyone that speaks sentences longer than three words is not your type.

Kinjou threw him a piece of bread. Tadokoro dodged with a grin and went on.

-          I can only repeat what Makishima already told us: he’s hot and he knows it, he’s a flirt, he has his hands full though not a stable relationship, he’s the adventurous type that has fun exploring his kinks.

Kinjou made a face. Tadokoro chuckled, but without mirt.

-          Yeah, and then we have our little oddball that breathes sequins and leads a colour-blind life, telling people how to get fucked into oblivion while having, on the matter, the very same experience he had ten years ago.

-          We made out when we were seventeen.

-          Make it six years ago, then. Still, not enough to keep up with a flamboyant womanizer that swings all the ways, no matter how cute.

-          Unfortunate.

-          Indeed.

Kinjou sucked in a stray noodle.

-          Can we blame this guy?

Tadokoro laughed heartily at that.

-          Ah! To an extent, I think? From what I gathered, his behaviour wasn’t stellar, but you know how these things go…

Kinjou nodded promptly. The interest might have been genuine from both ends, but the difference in their lifestyles and personal luggage was not so easy to overlook. If they hadn’t even reached the point of addressing those matters, there was probably little to hope in terms of compatibility and further developments.

-          Makishima needs someone with no rush.

-          Someone that wants to try for real.

-          Someone that is going to stay, at least for a while.

-          A normal person, with normal interests and a slight penchant for romance.

-          Really, Tadokoro?

-          The goat’s a closet romantic and could use some fluff, trust me on this.

Kinjou sipped some water.

-          I’d like to find him a good-looking one.

-          I’d settle for colour-blind, but that’s just wishful thinking, isn’t it?

Kinjou laughed at that.

-          Maybe. But Makishima deserves it.

Tadokoro touched their glasses, even if there was only water to toast with.

-          Indeed. He does.

***

 The Spring Race for amateur cyclists took place every year on the first weekend of April.

That year they were lucky, since the day looked promising enough with a warm breeze and a blue sky dotted here and there by harmless and fluffy white clouds. The cherry trees were in full bloom, filling the air with their sweet scent and wandering petals. One of them landed on Tadokoro’s nose and he sneezed. Yuusuke patted his shoulder and waved through the crowd. Kinjou followed his line of sight and spotted their former juniors, all of them, making their way among the bicycles to go and greet them. Yuusuke was more than willing to take his usual step back and let the others be rowdy and excited in his place. Not that he wasn’t happy to see them, of course, but he was perfectly fine leaving Kinjou and Tadokoro the hassle of asking questions and engage in small talk. Having Onoda’s full attention was more than enough, and he smiled at the kid (“Stop calling him that, Yuusuke, he’s only two years younger than you”) as they stood in companionable silence and watched their friends catching up in the loudest way possible. At least in Tadokoro and Naruko’s case.

-          So you three haven’t signed up for this one, then?

Onoda scratched his head almost apologetically.

-          Sorry, Makishima-san! We decided to check out Route B and picked tomorrow’s competition.

-          Took the easy way out, Onoda-chan!

The voice had come from somewhere in front of them and Yuusuke lifted his gaze to see a sour-looking, slender man standing beside Kinjou. His first thought was that the lean stranger reminded him of an angry, brash Imaizumi. His second, that he had been so taken with Onoda to completely miss this person’s appearance, loud as it had been. His third, that the man had to somehow be well acquainted with both Kinjou, on whose shoulder he was leaning, and Onoda, given the familiarity with which he had addressed him. Yuusuke didn’t really liked it. He narrowed his eyes just barely, an instinctive response to a situation that slightly unsettled him (for no clear reason). At one point he thought he’d gone overboard, because the stranger had focused on him and done an unmistakable double-take. Yuusuke was too used to people reacting to him this way to miss the guy’s attempt to hide his misstep. Yuusuke felt a bit more sympathetic after that.

-          Arakita-san!

-          Long time no see, Onoda-chan!

Kinjou caught Yuusuke’s weird expression and went on with the introductions.

-          Sohoku, this is Arakita: we went to university together. Arakita, these are the best cyclists that ever graduated from Sohoku. You already know most of them.

And from what Yuusuke could make out, they really did know each other. Onoda glanced at him and explained.

-          They biked together before Kinjou-san got hurt, so we kept running into each other during races, either as opponents or among the audience…

The guy, Arakita, snickered.

-          Yeah. It kind of happens when your whole pack is made of biking-junkies. Now, I see enough of this shady guy as it is, but what have you been up to, Onoda-chan? Manami’s been insufferable, the idiot.

Onoda looked genuinely mortified.

-          I’m sorry! I’ve had a lot of things going on these past weeks… but we signed up for tomorrow’s race!

Arakita chuckled.

-          Easy, easy. That Wonder Boy did too, so you might have avoided the Big Bad Wolf today, but you’re not going to escape Manami tomorrow. If he turns up in time, that is. Though if I tell him that you’re going to be there, he might.

Onoda beamed and, beside him, Yuusuke did too. “Manami” was a name he recognized from Onoda’s enthusiastic recounting of his favourite races (sweetest victories and most bitter defeats) and although he had never met the boy in person, he could relate to Onoda’s feelings. He whispered into his junior’s ear:

-          “Check out Route B”, eh?

Onoda flashed scarlet and gestured around, frantically.

-          I-It’s nothing like that, Makishima-san, I swear!

And right after that, they were all laughing together, so when it happened again, Yuusuke was once more the only one to notice it: at the mention of his name, Arakita had widened his eyes and recovered quickly, speaking up a moment later with a voice that might have been just a tiny bit shakier than before. Or maybe it was all in Yuusuke’s head.

-          So, who’s going to eat our dust today?

Kinjou chuckled and gestured towards Tadokoro, that had already moved beside him and clapped Kinjou’s shoulder with camaraderie.

-          You already know Tadokoro, don’t you?

They shook hands.

-          Only by fame. Shinkai won’t shut up about you.

-          Bwah-ah! Only good things I hope!

-          It depends on whether you kicked his ass on a sprint or gifted him a basket of those pork-buns of yours. They’re amazing, by the way.

Kinjou stepped in and turned Arakita towards Yuusuke.

-          You’ve never had the chance to meet Makishima, though. He has spent the last few years in the United Kingdom and only came back a bunch of months ago. It’s his first race since he returned to Japan, but I can assure you he’s still the best climber of the prefecture, hands down.

They too shook hands. Arakita, Yuusuke noted, looked a bit paler and weirdly stiff.

-          Makishima. Your name is… Makishima.

-          Ehr… yes? It is?

-          Your hair is… green.

Okay, that was something Yuusuke hadn’t missed about his homeland. He sighed.

-          Yeah, I’ve been dying it for ages, at this point it has become more natural to me than my original hair colour: I tend to forget it’s not exactly… common.

Arakita was still looking at him without blinking, nor letting go of his hand.

-          Forgive me, but… what is, exactly, that you do for a living?

Yuusuke should have made a very freaked-out face at that, because Arakita backed down.

-          I mean, I have the impression that I might have seen you somewhere, before. Sorry if it came out wrong.

The words and the tone of the voice didn’t suit him much, but Yuusuke played along.

-          I… work as a shop assistant. Near Tadokoro’s bakery.

Arakita swallowed.

-          And you are… their climber.

Yuusuke nodded, stiff. Kinjou threw an arm around his shoulder as Tadokoro clapped his back.

-          And he still holds the record for this mountain course! I checked!

Yuusuke gave a lopsided smirk at that and, to his surprise, Arakita did too.

-          Our climber will give you a run for your money, I’m sure.

-          Kuha! Bring it on, then!

-          Will do. Ohi, Kin-cha, I should go back and make sure my team is ready to kick asses. I take it that you already talked to Fuku-chan?

-          He’s waiting for both our teams at the finishing line so we can have lunch together once the race is over.

-          Fucking Stone-Face. Why, yeah, let’s take the winners and the sore losers out to lunch together, freakin’ brilliant, what could ever go wrong!?

-          The winner pays.

-          WHAT!?

-          It only seemed fair. It was Fukutomi’s idea.

-          Damn Fuku-chan! Well, then, see ya on the road. ‘Til next time, everyone. Ohi, Onoda-chan, beat the shit out of Manami tomorrow, will ya.

-          Y-Yes sir!

Tadokoro stepped forward.

-          Ohi, Arakita.

-          Yes?

-          I’m coming with you, I’d like to say hello to Shinkai before the start.

-          Sure, why not. By~e!

-          Coming right back Kinjou, Makishima.

They waved at his retreating form and went back to talking to their juniors. Yuusuke felt a bit as if a hurricane had just stormed over them. And as if a bigger one was brewing in the distance.

*

-          Say, do you have a problem with our climber, or something?

It wasn’t meant to sound like a threat, not at all, but being built like a truck and having a deep voice had the side-effect of turning even the most innocent question into a promise of deep, deep trouble if the answer was the wrong one. That time, however, Tadokoro didn’t feel the need to immediately explain himself. The almost unperceivable shiver that ran through Arakita’s back ignited a spark of satisfaction in him, but the intimidating effect seemed to not last for long, as Arakita replied, dry:

-          Not at all. He just reminded me of someone I kind of know. Must have been the hair.

-          I suggest you don’t start talking shit about his hair in my presence…

Arakita turned and snarled at him.

-          Oh, for fuck’s sake: I’ve played match-maker for Fuku-chan and Kin-chan just as much as you did! I’ve been banned from pretty much every hot-spring and public swimming pool of the country because I wanted a wold tattooed on my back! I don’t give a flying fuck about how a some random guy wants to wear his hair!

-          …you have a wolf tattooed on your back?

-          It’s a tribal one. On my right shoulder blade. And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.

They came to a halt in a small clearing near the sign-up booth, where Tadokoro spotted Shinkai sitting on a towel on the ground, fixing the last details on his bike. There was an eager youth with rippling g muscles already chatting with him, and Tadokoro thought he could see a vein pulse on Arakita’s forehead.

Shinkai raised his head and spotted them, waving hello and stopping the younger man beside him from bolting away at the sight of Arakita, who disappeared in the crowd somewhere at their left.

-          Jin-kun! This is Touichirou: he’s a sprinter like us, but he signed up for tomorrow’s race.

-          Really? I know a kid or two that could give you some trouble on the flats: watch out for anything red, especially short, loud beans, will you?

Touichirou looked positively confused, but was too polite to let it show. Much.

-          I…ehr…I’ll try?

Tadokoro cocked his head at him.

-          Aren’t you the guy that delivers pizza near the river on Thursday nights?

Izumida blushed before stuttering.

-          Y-Yes! I’m trying to s-save money to-

-          No, it’s cool! I mean, your stuff is good: you have to tell me what you put in the dough, because I’ve tried to recreate your recipe for fun with my ovens and I think I’m missing something. Listen-

It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when they were engaged in an animated conversation about the proper amount of protein intake necessary to a sprinter and what role energy bars and gels should or should not have had into an athlete’s diet, that a roar caught their attention. Izumida fled.

-          The fuck do you have in that head of yours, Manami!?

-          Sorry, sorry, Arakita-san~!

-          Wipe that smirk off your face, moron!

-          Stop scolding him, Arakita!

-          You shut your mouth, Toudou! He’s your junior: stop coddling him and spoiling him!

-          He’s an adult of legal age.

-          He was napping on a fucking tree and you didn’t even notice!

-          I met people from my former fan-club, alright? They’re thinking of reviving it!

And they came into view: Arakita, preceded by a serene-looking boy that was humming to himself and followed by a guy more or less their age he was arguing with. A very handsome guy their age, built more or less like Makishima, with pitch black hair and wide eyes and a radiant smile, carrying his helmet on one hand so that he could use the other to fix something on top of his hair, something that looked awfully like a… oh god. It couldn’t be.

Shinkai stood up as the smiling kid approached.

-          Good to see you, Sangaku.

-          Good morning, Shinkai-san! I’m sorry that Arakita-san got mad: I came to see Toudou-san, but then I got sleepy.

The name echoed in Tadokoro’s head like a bad omen.

-          Toudou-san?

Shinkai picked up from there, beaming at the boy as he sauntered back towards Arakita and the other man with joyful steps.

-          Yes, he’s our climber! You know, the one I talked to you about over the phone? Wait, I’ll call him over: ohi, Jinpachi! Come here!

It was a headband. It was definitely a headband, and the shirt he was wearing bore the logo of a rehabilitation centre that Tadokoro had vaguely heard of. Toudou had turned his back on them, though, engaged in what looked like a friendly conversation with “Sangaku”, and thus didn’t notice Shinkai calling him. The latter tried again, but Tadokoro was suddenly filled with an impending sense of dread at the thought of facing that guy and stopped Shinkai.

-          It’s alright! I mean… there’s a lot of people around and it seems that they have lots of catching up to do… leave them. We’ll see each other soon, after all: on the road…

He spoke the last words with less and less voice until they were little more than a whisper. This was not good. He had to get Kinjou…

-          Yeah, sure. That’s Manami Sangaku, by the way: another climber of ours. I think he has gone against that kid of yours a few times? The one with the glasses?

-          O-Onoda?

-          Sangaku speaks very highly of him.

-          T-The feeling is mutual, I suppose…

Tadokoro stole another glance of Toudou, noticing his posture, his body language, his gestures and, although unwillingly, the extremely attractive picture he painted just standing casually under the shade of some trees. He couldn’t be wrong. There were too many coincidences for Tadokoro to be wrong. Still, hoped that maybe… if he just stared long enough he might have found a clue to dismantle his theory… it would have been much easier if that Toudou just wasn’t who Tadokoro believed he was…

Arakita met his eyes from above Toudou’s head, wearing a matching, agonized expression, and something passed between them in that moment, a shared thought they both were too conflicted to voice aloud – caught as they were in their own side of the story and too unaware of each other’s struggles – but in a far too similar position to not recognize it for what it was: a promise of trouble to come, with the immediate understanding of the exact reason why. It called for immediate action.

-          Look, Shinkai, it was good to talk to you, but I think I must go back, now.

-          Sure, it’s almost time to get ready for the race. I look forward to our sprint, Jin-kun.

Tadokoro smiled, despite everything.

-          Yes. Me too.

Shinkai winked at him.

-          And to the great lunch we’re going to have after the race. You know Juichi, don’t you?

“If we survive that long”, thought Tadokoro.

-          Of course. See you later, then. Say goodbye to Arakita and Izumida for me, will you.

-          Will do for sure! Bye!

Shinkai returned to his bike and put it back together with practiced movements; when Tadokoro’s back had disappeared through the crowd, he felt Arakita approach and stand silent at his side, watching apprehensively as Toudou parted ways with Manami.

-          I’ll leave you to your things, Toudou-san. There’s a person I’d like to meet before the race begins.

Toudou chuckled.

-          Go greet your rival, Manami. It’s only fair. Try to keep him close, it’s a very rewarding relationship.

-          Speaking from experience, Toudou-san?

Toudou looked at him with a wishful face and nodded towards the other side of the park.

-          Go. And please, do try to show up at the goalpost. Fuku would like to see you.

-          Are you inviting me to lunch?

-          Maybe. Now go away.

-          Aye, aye! Bye, Shinkai-san! Arakita-san~!

Manami hopped away and Arakita couldn’t help but grumble at his carefree gait.

-          Fucking airhead.

Toudou sighed and picked up his bag from where he’d left it, near Shinkai, and threw it over his shoulder.

-          I’m getting changed and then I’ll be ready to go.

Arakita sneered.

-          Bike?

-          Already done.

-          Don’t start fawning over yourself in the changing rooms. There are mirrors.

-          Very funny. Besides, there’s no need to. I already look awesome.

He left with his head tilted high, waving over his shoulder at the two of them. Arakita cursed under his breath; Shinkai waited for him to be done with the last string of swears to ask calmly.

-          Now, care to tell me what all the fuss between you and Jin-kun was about?

Arakita went still and looked at his boyfriend in disbelief.

-          You noticed?!

Shinkai stared back with a neutral expression. It could mean anything from “the two of you were so obvious that even a blind person would have seen it” to “we’ve been together for six years and you still refuse to acknowledge the fact that I can read you like a book because yes, I do know you and, more importantly, I am a pretty perceptive person, thank you very much, so spill the beans and save yourself the embarrassment, you sack of shit”. Arakita wasn’t ready to discover which interpretation was the correct one, so he just swallowed and slumped down at Shinkai’s side, bringing a hand up his hair.

-          We’re fucked. And if this is the last private conversation we’re going to have before the end, I’d like you to know that I never thought your ass was fat, not really. And Yuuto’s right, you do look cute with a frilly apron on, I was just being a jerk last morning. In fact, I bought you a slice of chocolate cake early today and hid it in the fridge for you to find it tonight. As a surprise.

-          Why are you talking as if we’re going to die?

-          Because we are.

-          What did you do.

It wasn’t a question.

-          Nothing.

-          Yasutomo…

-          No, I really did nothing.

Shinkai pulled that face again and Arakita realized he couldn’t dance around the subject all day.

-          Makishima Yuusuke is Kin-chan’s climber. By the way, they’re in the same team of your sprinter friend.

Shinkai blinked, but nothing betrayed his blank expression.

-          Are you sure?

Arakita rolled his eyes.

-          Look, I may not be the smartest dick around but I just went to greet Kin-chan and he introduced me to his climber and the guy says his name is Makishima Yuusuke, he is all long limbs and moles near his eye and mouth and his hair is fucking green and all over the place and apparently he’s a shop assistant near Tadokoro’s bakery and you do remember in what neighbourhood Tadokoro’s bakery is, do you?!

It was something they had discovered only recently, so Shinkai must have remembered. He blinked.

-          You’re trying to tell me that the climber we are trying to set Jinpachi up with to make him forget about the sex-shop guy is… the sex-shop guy. Because he races with Kinjou. And Jin-kun.

-          Yes.

-          Fuck.

-          Yeah, pretty much.

-          Do you think we should tell Jinpachi?

-          What happens if we do?

-          He quits the race and goes back to step one. And he probably won’t talk to us for a couple of weeks, because we set up the group lunch-date.

-          We never said it was a lunch-date!

-          You do realize he’s not stupid, do you?

-          Fine! What happens if we don’t tell him, instead?

-          He finds out during the race, the hard way. It either fires him up and makes him win the race or it makes him quit and we’re on our own. Though he probably won’t stay mad at us for long, in that case. We can pretend we didn’t know. But we have to take care of him, afterwards.

-          Do we?

-          It’s the morally and socially acceptable thing to do, Yasutomo. Especially if we’re going to indirectly break his heart again.

Arakita groaned.

-          What if we pedal really hard, leave everyone behind, win by a huge margin and ditch lunch altogether?

-          It would be great, but would Shingo-kun let us do that?

-          Absolutely not.

Shinkai sighed.

-          Let’s just hope Jinpachi can make an escape through the hills, then.

Arakita grinned. Their headband-ed nuisance was a royal pain, yes, but he could climb.

*

Kinjou was wiping his shades on a soft cloth when Tadokoro stopped in front of him, short of breath.

-          Tadokoro, you look pale, are you alright?

-          Where is Makishima?

-          Naruko accidentally threw his milkshake all over him: he’s changing his jersey in Kanzaki-san’s van.

-          Good, we have an emergency.

Kinjou’s face set to stone as it usually did when things got serious and required immediate action and quick-thinking. Tadokoro was grateful for that: he needed Kinjou’s clutch-mode at the moment.

-          What is it, Tadokoro?

-          The guy from the shop. Makishima’s guy. That Toudou Jinpachi you met.

-          Yes.

Tadokoro held out a hand, palm facing the ground, at shoulder level.

-          More or less this tall, average sixty kilos, shiny black hair of approximately this length, big indigo eyes, headband, kind of loud, attractive in the most conventional way and aware of it?

-          How do you-

-          He’s Arakita’s climber.

Kinjou opened his mouth and closed it after several seconds without saying anything. Then opened it again. Tadokoro sweated cold, and when Kinjou finally spoke, it felt like even his stomach had turned into ice.

-          What do we do, now?

Tadokoro swallowed.

-          What do you mean “what do we do”, Kinjou! You are the smart one, you are supposed to tell me!

-          It’s not a matter of being smart.

-          Fine! You’re the wise one, then. Still: tell me!

-          I’m trying to think.

-          Good, because I’m in a bit of a panic at the moment.

-          First of all: did you tell Makishima we were trying to use todays’ lunch as a sort of blind group-date for him and the other climber?

Tadokoro looked affronted (and also offended at the thought that Kinjou could believe him to be that stupid, but he didn’t harp on that).

-          God, no. I only told him we would have liked to go out together with your boyfriend.

-          Very good, Tadokoro.

-          Geez, I may not be the cleverest man around but I do know how to deal with my psychotic best friend, thank you very much.

Kinjou nodded. Tadokoro stared.

-          …why was it important, again?

-          Because if Makishima runs into Toudou-san and makes the connection he might think we set up the whole thing, and considering how he reacted the last time you voiced out concerns and suggested dating…

-          He won’t blame us in the slightest this time. I’m sure.

-          Which leaves us with the impending question: do we tell him?

-          I’m positive that if he sniffs that there’s the chance of meeting that Toudou, he’s going to flee. The prefecture or the country, I can’t say.

-          But if we don’t tell him and they see each other on the road, it might be worse.

-          Are you sure? Because Makishima is far more reasonable and approachable when he has a bike between his legs.

-          …that’s true as well.

-          I think it’s because he has to focus on trying not to break his neck while he sways left and right, so his attention span is limited.

-          Very observant of you, Tadokoro.

-          …and the goat is really fast uphill: if we can launch him as soon as possible he might fly over all the other climbers and get away from the pack without even noticing Arakita’s team. Then we win, you go out with your boyfriend and I fake a stomach-ache and bring Makishima home with me.

-          Sounds good to me.

They stayed silent for a while, both lost in their own thoughts. Tadokoro cleared his voice: his smile was eerie and tense.

-          …there’s no way someone can slow Makishima down on this route, is there?

Kinjou looked at him from above his shades.

-          Absolutely not.

Tadokoro grinned.

*

-          Do you see them?

Arakita made a show of not making a show of scanning the crowd that was gathering at the starting line. Shinkai was leaning on his handlebars, munching on an energy bar.

-          No. When I went to see Kin-chan they still hadn’t signed up, though. They should have high numbers and be at the back…

Shinkai put the bar wrapper in his back-pockets.

-          Lucky we got here early, then.

-          Lucky Toudou is an insomniac maniac.

-          Yasutomo…

-          Well, it’s true!

-          Don’t you think it’s safer to, I don’t know, tell Shingo-kun or Jin-kun about the matter?

-          We left the phones behind and Kin-chan must have done the same by now. If I run off to talk to him now it will be a problem, not to mention suspect. Besides, if the look on your bear-friend’s face was anything to go by, I believe they’re not completely unaware of what is going on.

-          You think Jin-kun recognized Jinpachi? But that must mean…

-          Well, where does it say that our idiot has to be the only idiot? Maybe that Makishima told them about Toudou too.

-          We’re missing something here, Yasutomo. But I can’t exactly pinpoint what.

-          Don’t think too much, you’ll hurt yourself.

Shinkai snorted.

-          Just pray everything goes smoothly or we’ll never hear the end of it.

-          Hear the end of what?

Toudou had appeared at Shinkai’s side and was busy adjusting his helmet. Arakita had known him for long enough to notice that Toudou was putting on his “race” face, frivolity giving in to concentration. A focused Toudou was a sharp Toudou, sharper than usual, at least, and in such circumstances it could mean trouble.

-          Of Fuku-chan’s complaints if we lose this race and disappoint him.

Toudou’s helmet clicked into place, finally, and he faced the empty road ahead of them.

-          We won’t. Lose, I mean.

Arakita chuckled.

-          ‘course not. Shall we go over the plan again?

Shinkai and Toudou nodded. Arakita breathed in and out.

-          We start. I pull you out of the pack at the usual pace: nothing straining, just ahead enough to do our business in peace.

Shinkai butted in.

-          As soon as we uncover the flats, I go get the ribbon and then wait for you to join me again.

-          I keep pulling you along until we reach the hill.

Toudou tested his gloves and went on.

-          We switch positions and I pull you up to the next checkpoint, leaving you only for the brief time it takes me to get my own ribbon. Then we switch again downhill.

-          …and you both make sure you can stick as close to my ass as possible, because from the moment I get the lead I’m not slowing down until the three of us have passed the finish line – Arakita concluded.

Then, he addressed Toudou again.

-          Don’t worry for us on the climb. Go as fast as you can: we’ll keep up.

*

-          How did we end up so deep in the pack, again? – Tadokoro huffed.

Kinjou replied, calmly.

-          We signed up late. It’s alright, though: we will pass them soon.

-          Makishima?

-          Three rows behind, greeting an acquaintance.

-          Do you see them?

Kinjou nodded towards the starting line.

-          Somewhere up there, they had low numbers.

-          So we need to pass them?

-          Unfortunately.

-          Kinjou, don’t you think we should, like, talk to Arakita or something? Tell him about the issue?

Kinjou raised a brow.

-          Bit late for that, isn’t it? We’re starting in a matter of minutes. Besides, we just have to mind our own business and pay attention to the road.

-          …are you trying to convince me or yourself?

-          I’m just saying that Arakita and I are not talkative during races, so if you don’t draw attention to their sprinter we might be able to pass them without fussing. Makishima is hardly aware of his opponents and surroundings when he’s focused.

-          Yeah, that’s all very well-said, but the point is: is Toudou Jinpachi the same? Because you know, it takes a hella lot of “focus” to miss a green-haired dude that looks like he might fall off his bike any time…

-          What do you mean?

-          I mean that, from the look on Arakita’s face, it might be possible that they are in a situation much more similar to ours than we had imagined.

Kinjou looked slightly sick. Tadokoro voiced their most dreaded thoughts.

-          I… I feel like we’re overlooking something, Kinjou. Something pretty important, but I don’t know what it is…

Kinjou touched his shoulder, although his expression hadn’t cleared.

-          Then we’ll just have to wait and see.

-          Wait and see for what?

Makishima had appeared at Tadokoro’s side, fixing the hair at his nape. Tadokoro barked a nervous laughter.

-          For your skinny ass to finally join us!

-          Sorry, public relations.

Kinjou clapped his hands to get their attention and they sobered up, waiting for him to speak.

-          How about a collective plan-revision?

Tadokoro took a deep breath.

-          I pull you from the start, get you at the front, try to catch the ribbon and grant us as much a  head start as I can.

Kinjou nodded, Makishima took over.

-          We switch as soon as we reach the hills. I carry the two of you to the top, and then-

Kinjou pushed up his shades.

-          Then it’s my turn and I’ll make sure we cross the finish line together.

Tadokoro crossed his arms.

-          With the occasional help, if you can’t shield the wind properly.

Kinjou agreed. Makishima snickered.

-          Oh, and Makishima?

-          Yes.

-          Please, do not restrain yourself for our sake, during the climb. We’ll be right behind you anyway. Just focus on the road and we will take care of all the rest.

***

Afterwards, as he sat at a square wooden table in a small diner, facing an equally dumbfounded Kinjou and a slightly horrified Fukutomi, ignoring the munching sounds from Shinkai and Tadokoro (subdued as they were), Arakita didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Laugh, definitely, because once you got over the initial surprise and disbelief (and the fact that his best friend had been –and still was- pretty hurt), the whole chain of unfortunate events and ridiculous coincidences was too hilarious not to. He snorted, at some point, unable to restrain himself, and Kinjou glared at him, his face grim. Fukutomi had his usual stony expression, which could mean anything, all in all, but still suited Kinjou’s gravity more than Arakita’s hilarity.

-          Sorry, sorry, Kin-chan! It’s just… how many chances there were?!

-          I just hope Onoda got a grab of Makishima.

Shinkai’s phone went off in the middle of the table, chirping merrily. He opened the text while popping a meatball in his mouth.

-          Well, Sangaku got Jinpachi, at least. Looks like he doesn’t hate us. Cheers.

On Kinjou’s left, Tadokoro’s phone buzzed twice and he snatched it with impressive speed, considering that he had been holding his chopsticks with the same hand.

-          Seems like Makishima got home too. Ren says he’s pretty mad, but not at us. Good.

There was a collective sigh, followed by an awkward silence. Kinjou was twirling his chopstick around his bowl of soup. Fukutomi stared solemnly at the tacky decorations on the walls. Shinkai had been chewing meat like a starving man for ages and Tadokoro was downing rice like he hadn’t seen food for days, but they both lacked their usual sprint. Arakita was being generous with the soy sauce on his plate. He still spoke first.

-          Sooo… what do we do now?

The glares he received were so piercing that he dropped the whole bottle over his lunch. He cursed.

***

The following Wednesday, so early in the morning that the sun hadn’t properly risen yet, Toudou was leaning on the balcony of an almost empty parking lot, bike at his side, glancing in the distance and taking in the scenery. He took a sip from the can of hot coffee he had purchased from the vending machine on his left: hardly the most suited drink for an athlete in the midst of his training session, but it kept him warm and tasted goos, so Toudou had indulged himself.

It wasn’t even a right to call it a “training session”, since he hadn’t even paid attention to his time and just enjoyed the climb uphill. There was little to do at the top, especially at that hour and alone: the kiosks were closed and the road stopped, giving way to narrow paths only approachable on foot or by mountain bike. So, he had just hopped onto his road racer again and had taken the road downhill: not the steep one he’d come from, but a les challenging one, longer yet less dangerous.

One that could allow him to focus on his thoughts while he descended, and enjoy the breath-taking view of the sleepy city below. Without the ache in his legs that came from the effort of climbing, nor the worry of sharp turns taken at too high speed (he really, really disliked going downhill, the reckless stunts Arakita was able to pull on such tracks made Toudou’s skin crawl with apprehension), he could let his mind wander, although, lately, perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. His thoughts were filled with red-streked green and a frustrating sense of loss and disappointment, and no matter how hard he tried to stop his brain, the words that kept echoing inside it were: “You ruined everything!”.

There was the frustrating feeling of a matter closed without closure, of a door locked with questions still unanswered, things still unsaid (how ironic: they had definitely said too much, and yet not enough. Not nearly enough). He couldn’t help but feel uneasy and restless. As if he had missed a chance. As if he had missed the chance, and for all the wrong reasons. But words had flown, and gears had turned, and suddenly it was too late, and tempers had flared, and he was sure he had been right, but there had been a discordant chord somewhere, there still was, and it all had mingled with the exhilarating experience of riding a whole mountain course with and against someone that could hold his own, against someone Toudou could go all-out with. And of course it had to be him, and even if Toudou hadn’t reigned in his tongue, not even for a second (neither had Makishima, to be fair), a tiny voice had been nagging at the back of his mind the whole time and it still was, saying things like “you’re making a mistake” and “there might be more going on here than you ever considered” and also, as he had been watching Makishima’s back disappear through the crowd in stiff anger, “you got him all wrong”.

He swallowed a mouthful of hot coffee and shivered in the cold. Arakita had sent him a couple of messages in the previous days, suggesting in an unusually calm tone that they’d better talk, that there were things he ought to tell Toudou, but Toudou had ignored him and told him that it wasn’t the moment, that he needed some alone time, which was true. He had also thought about going back to the infamous shop and seek Makishima out once for all, but he couldn’t find the resolve to. He didn’t know what face he should have made. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to feel.

There was the sound of thin wheels reeling on the asphalt, behind him, but Toudou, half-concealed by the vending machines, didn’t pay it much attention. It was very close to dawn, after all, and he had picked a popular route. Still, he was in no need for small talk, and didn’t let the soft noises of  a rider dismounting their bike and moving the first tentative, stiff steps after a climb distract him from his reflections.

It wasn’t exactly the fact that it had ended that bothered him. Well, yes, that too, and quite a lot, to be honest, but he had long since learned and accepted that romance could not bloom, sometimes. Anyway, it was more the way it had done so, and now that his head had cooled down consistently, he didn’t feel very proud of the part he had played in the exchange. He was still angry at hurt at Makishima too, so much that he gritted his teeth at the memory, blood rushing to his face.

It was probably still early to go to the shop, but he knew in that moment that it was something he needed to do. They would have probably fought again, and then said their goodbyes once for all, but at least Toudou would have had the chance to apologize for his role in their fallout and walk out of Makishima’s life with as much dignity as he could take back. Maybe even leave a less horrible memory. He didn’t even want his last memory of Makishima to be an awful one. A sad one, a regretful one, he could deal with – but and extremely awkward, terrifically embarrassing one? No, thank you.

There was a mechanical noise behind him, the sound of gears turning and getting stuck, followed by a short, muffled curse and a mild thump. Right, a common problem with the products on the right side of the vending machine.

More to give himself a mental break than out of generosity, he placed a couple of well-aimed punches on the side of the machine and moved around it just in time to hear the echo of the carton of milk falling into the collecting drawer.

-          Sorry to butt in, but I’m familiar with this old thing: it will eat all your money if you don’t know where to pun-

He froze mid-sentence, mouth hanging open.

Makishima Yuusuke was right in front of him.

*

Toudou Jinpachi was right in front of him: he had appeared out of nowhere and Yuusuke wished for the ground to open up and swallow him whole. He hadn’t left the comfort of his bed at such an ungodly hour, running away from his haunting thoughts, just to run straight into the one thing that was causing them, the one person he wanted to avoid at all costs.

There was a tiny part of him, buried under a thick layer of bitterness, disappointment and outright anger, that had been starting to consider the possibility of talking to Toudou again, one last time, and, well, not really “fix” things, they were far too gone for that, but apologize, maybe, and then part ways once for all, possibly like two normal people. But it had been a fleeting thought in three days of denial, hurt and overworking himself to just shut his brain out. He wasn’t ready for going out for a climb, intentioned to soothe his nerves, and coming face to face with Toudou Jinpachi, of all people.

Not that he had meant to meet any people in the first place.

He wasn’t ready for coming to terms with his feelings, he had done very little in terms of putting them into words, he still felt far too embarrassed and awkward about the whole ordeal to even rationalize it. He wasn’t ready to stand in front of Toudou Jinpachi, the man that had humiliated him and that he had paid back with equal cruelty, but also the man that climbed as if he was the God of the Mountain himself, and how long had it been since Yuusuke had had such fun during a race?

The man that was so infuriating in his beauty and self-confidence and arrogant sense of entitlement, but also the man with the most infectious smile and charisma, with a lightness around himself that lifted your spirit no matter what. The past three days had been a whirlwind of contrasting emotions: bitterness at the way things had played down, regret for all the words that shouldn’t have been spoken (not that way, at least), guilt for his own pettiness and low blows, anger at Toudou’s self-righteousness and crazy accusations, exhilaration at his undeniable talent as a cyclist and climber, more guilt, for enjoying the ride despite everything. And underneath it all there was a nagging sense of doubt, something Yuusuke couldn’t quit eplace anywhere. Ren called it a wishful hope, a comprehensible state of delusion that Yuusuke might as well embrace, if it made him feel better. Yuusuke held the belief that it was more a faithful intuition, but he didn’t have the means to see the truth.

Actually, he could call Tadokoro (or even better: answer his calls and texts) and ask for clarifications, but if he was honest with himself, he feared the answers more than anything at the moment – while withdrawing, shutting people and things out, compartmentalizing and going on with his life had always been talents of his. Though unstable, the peace of mind that resulted from it was worth the lack of closure. Even if the lingering questions came at him at the most unexpected moments (just like that night, when it had kept him awake past three a.m., until he had had no choice but to get up and find another way to exhaust himself) and sent chills along his spine, making it harder to breath: “Couldn’t it be just a twisted, horrible misunderstanding?” – “What if you got him all wrong?”

And yet, closure was right there, in front of him, an unreadable expression on a face that shouldn’t have looked so good at the break of dawn, but of course it did. And Yuusuke wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t ready for more words, more confrontations, more rejection, more heartbreak. More.

-          M-Maki-chan?

He fled.

*

Makishima’s eyes grew wide and unfocused and he turned on the spot in a whirl of green hair and lime jersey, cheeks flushed bright pink from the exertion, the cold and perhaps something else. And Toudou found himself once again rooted on the spot, staring at the lithe back of a fleeing man, unable to stop him. Three days before, he had been too surprised, upset and confused to act in a constructive was: in his shock, he had let Makishima go, and only now that history was repeating itself he understood how much that had hurt. What a torment the wait, the self-doubt, the incertitude had been. And Toudou wasn’t ready for more uncertainty, more tension, more misunderstandings, more regret, more awkwardness, more heartbreak.

He launched forward.

-          Wait!!!

*

It was the tone, more than the command, that stopped him. The broken syllable he had almost missed. Or maybe he just needed and excuse, and was so eager to find one that he’d made it up. Still, Yuusuke froze on the spot, but took his time turning around, schooling his features into an expression as impassive as he could master. Toudou’s arm was still stretched towards him, as if he had moved to catch Yuusuke’s wrist and decided against it at the very last second. A wise move. Yuusuke found it comforting. He was still staring at Toudou’s inviting hand when the latter spoke again, softly.

-          Wait. Please.

*

He couldn’t read Makishima’s expression, and maybe it was better that way. He had the feeling that not touching him had been the right choice. It had been instinctive, and it comforted Toudou, gave him courage.

-          C-Can we… talk? Maybe?

Makishima crossed his arms, cutting Toudou out.

-          You said plenty, last time.

Toudou mimicked his stance.

-          Well, you didn’t exactly hold your tongue now, did you?

Makishima’s left eye twitched, just above his mole, and once again he moved away, in the direction of his bike. Toudou chastised himself and quickly retrieved the forgotten milk from the vending machine, ran in front of Makishima and offered him the drink before the latter could pedal away.

-          Wait! I’m sorry, alright!? Just… just, wait. Don’t go.

-          What do you want, Toudou?!

Oh well. The time for half-truths and ambiguous words had long since passed.

-          I don’t want that to be the last time I talked to you. It doesn’t feel right.

Makishima uncurled his arms at that and he seemed to deflate a bit. Toudou went on.

-          Can we just… sit a bit? Over there?

The bench he pointed at faced the still sleeping city. In the dim early-morning light it looked surreal. Makishima looked at it for several, long seconds. Then, he took the milk from Toudou’s hand gently and nodded.

*

-          This is a nice place.

Toudou turned to him, slightly surprised, but recovered quickly and agreed, a soft smile on his lips. It suited him, and did funny things to Yuusuke’s stomach. Things he couldn’t afford at the moment, because he was trying to steel himself against Toudou’s charming ways, while they softened him, and made him chatty.

-          I come here often.

-          Really? Me too. How come we’ve never run into each other before?

Yuusuke shrugged and sipped his milk, wondering if he should have been the fist to brace the subject. It wasn’t necessary, as Toudou whispered to nobody in particular staring at the horizon.

-          I’m sorry, you know. About the race.

Yuusuke squeezed the carton with so much force that it sent milk straight to his nose through the straw, but he  managed to play it cool and make it go unnoticed. Still, the rage stayed.

-          Well, you should be.

Toudou sent him an annoyed glare. Yuusuke didn’t back down.

-          You know, you’re not making this any easier.

-          I’m still pretty annoyed at you, actually.

-          So am I. And frustrated. And sad. Disappointed, too. But most of all, regretful, somehow. And confused.

That got Yuusuke’s attention.

-          About what?

-          You.

-          You didn’t sound confused three days ago. Not at all.

-          I called you-

-          A home-wrecker. A slut and a sex-freak. In that order.

Toudou cringed and looked at him with the corner of his eye.

-          You are… terrifically controlled about this…

Yuusuke stared at the battered milk in his hands.

-          I already had my comeback. You should remember.

He had called Toudou a two-faced cheating bastard, a pervert and a womanizer. From the shade of pink on Toudou’s cheeks, he hadn’t indeed forgotten. Yuusuke went on.

-          I told you: I’m still… quite pissed about it. But it’s not the first time that I’ve been accused of things I’ve never done. Actually, I’ve been called worse.

*

Toudou whipped his head around and opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t say anything, astonished at the casual tone Makishima had used. As if it was, indeed, a common occurrence to be yelled at for his presumed sexual habits.

-          Besides, it was in line with your latest behaviour, so…

-          What do you mean?

-          The jacket. The hot-pants. The latex. I was… waiting for you. But you never came back. Now I know why.

Toudou panicked.

-          It’s not like that.

Makishima snorted.

-          Please. How should it be, then?

He knew that everything he might have said would have sounded lame and, possibly, fake. At least if he told the truth, he could have walked away with a clear conscience, even if Makishima didn’t believe him. It was also a first step towards clearing misunderstandings, since Makishima had assumed things from his absence. Toudou sighed and braced himself.

-          I have had.. a bad experience.

-          Eh?

-          With the latex. I’ve had… a very bad experience.

-          Oh.

Makishima was staring at the ground with a dejected expression that pulled at Toudou’s heartstrings. So much that he felt compelled to say more.

-          I…ehr… didn’t know I was allergic to latex.

Makishima’s head shot up and he stared at Toudou with wide eyes.

-          I spent two weeks covered in salve from the neck below. I was too embarrassed even to come and ask for a refund. I’m sorry about it. I was looking forward to that meeting…

-          That’s it?

-          Eh?

-          That’s all there is to it? You felt self-conscious over something you had no responsibility over and… that’s all? That’s why you disappeared without a word? Nothing else? Nothing to do with… me?

-          Well, I didn’t have the courage to face you, to be honest, you would have thought I was the lamest man on Earth.

-          But why did you pick a fight at the race, then!?

-          Because you messed with my friends, and that I can’t tolerate.

-          You kept repeating it last time too, but I still don’t understand what you mean! I don’t even know your friends!

-          Maybe not, but you’re still screwing around with their boyfriends.

-          What the hell are you talking about?!

-          I’m talking about Kinjou Shingo, that happens to be in a serious relationship with my good friend Fukutomi Juichi – well, maybe not anymore, Fuku said he has taken care of that, anyw-

-          Kinjou is my FRIEND! We went to school together!

-          Look, I don’t know about you, but in my books friends don’t go around having threesomes every other day.

-          WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK ARE YOU HIGH ON!?

-          I get that it’s private, or embarrassing or whatever, but it’s alright. I know.

-          WHAT do YOU know?!

-          The thing that’s going on between you, Kinjou and the bear.

-          He’s Tadokoro-san for you.

-          Still, him.

-          And where on the fucking Earth did you get the impression, no, the absolute certainty, that I and my two best friends are in a somehow sexual relationship!?

-          I saw you.

Makishima choked at that.

-          W-what!? HOW!?

-          At the shop. Last time. Before I lost my commuter pass.

-          At my shop.

-          Yes! All that pampering and domestic bliss, and Kinjou brought you the fanciest flowers, and the bear had all your favourite sweets and they were so apologetic because they had hurt you so bad that you couldn’t even sit down properly!

*

Yuusuke had turned green all of a sudden, until realization struck and he switched to red instead, springing up from the bench and slamming the carton of milk in the nearest trashcan. When he turned to face Toudou, some of his hair had escaped the ponytail and curled in the humid air, flying around wildly and giving Yuusuke a mad look, complemented perfectly by the bared teeth and the roar that followed.

-          THEY PUSHED ME OFF MY BIKE!

Toudou paused in the middle of his tirade.

-          …eh?

-          We were going through our usual training route. You know, for the race. And they messed up and made me crash! I BRUISED MY HIP!

-          B-But you were…

-          Mad at them?! Of-fucking-course I was! It still doesn’t mean that any of it is somehow your business!

-          I stumbled upon it, okay?!

-          And decided that a mad story about me fucking my friends was more plausible than, I don’t know, anything else!? Anything normal?!

-          Well, it seemed pretty coherent with your everyday behaviour!

-          WHAT?!

-          You fool around with your co-worker! And now don’t tell me he is another close friend of yours, because last time I saw the two of you together you had hurt your knee late at night in the apartment you two share and he admitted it was his fault. And he calls you with a bunch of pet names that would make a couple blush!

-          …because he’s my fucking OLDER BROTHER and he’s an idiot! Wait, to me he’s an idiot: to you, he’s a perfectly respectable human being and you should kiss the ground he walks on!

-          You’re kidding.

Yuusuke felt on the verge of tears. Or passing out from indignation, more likely.

-          What kind of sick imagination do you have to have to miss the point so bad!?

-          You look nothing alike.

-          We do! It’s the hair that messes things up! We have the same name on out tags!

-          …I don’t think I ever saw him wearing one, to be honest.

-          But honestly! I fell down the stairs! How do you even hurt a knee having sex!?

-          Don’t ask me, you are the one into kinky shit.

-          EXCUSE ME!?! Who’s the one that kept coming and buying sex toys!?

-          As a beginner! I was dumb-struck by your intimate knowledge of those things.

-          I SELL THEM, you IDIOT! I am also partially involved in their production! I HAVE TO know how that shit works!

-          And you also have to take off your clothes, get tied up and take pictures now, do you?!

Yuusuke went from red to white in a heart-bit. Still and silent too, as if someone had turned off his switch all of a sudden.

-          Y-You saw that?

-          You bet I did.

-          H-How…?

-          By accident. Still, it didn’t look amateurish work at al- EHI!

The moment Toudou had mentioned the picture, and it could only be Brian’s picture – one of the candid shots he had sent them probably, because nobody would have gotten so hung up on the final product, a published collection of portraits – Yuusuke’s brain had stopped functioning. What was he thinking, accepting to model again? It only took a silly, chaste shot from years before to set people against him, to label him a pervert, and he wanted to appear on their walls and houses wearing heels and make up and jewels?!

He had been right: it was no London – a city that all of a sudden he longed for. Rejection had hurt there too, but not as much as the contemptuous look in Toudou’s eyes while he spat the words. Very little had hurt that much. Yuusuke cursed himself for having thought that talking might have helped them, and dashed towards his bike without another word.

*

Toudou was not ready for Makishima’s quick escape, but he reacted just as promptly anyway, because his reflexes were that good and he had been over-attentive for the past minutes, overwhelmed by all the information he was gathering.

That time, he didn’t even consider not touching Makishima, who was already hopping onto his bike and pedalling out of the parking lot: Toudou stepped right in front of the tire and put his hands on the handlebars, ignoring Makishima’s protests.

-          WAIT!

As soon as it was clear that the bike wasn’t going to move, Toudou let it go and caught Makishima’s forearms instead.

-          Leave me alone!

-          No! You’re upset and it’s my fault!

-          You have no right to ask! I don’t have to tell you anything!

-          You are right, you don’t. And I’m not asking.

-          Let me go

-          You are distressed. It’s dangerous to get on the road in such a state, especially at this hour.

Heart thumping in his chest, Toudou kept a steady grip on Makishima’s wrist and brought him back to the bench, stopping only to grab another couple of hot drinks from the vending machine. Neither of them spoke for a long time, but Toudou, though itching for questions, kept his promise and didn’t initiate any conversation. Something told him they were reaching the core of the matter.

As he waited for the situation to unravel, he tried to process everything he had heard and learned so far, though words like “friends” and “brother” and “job” and “imagination” kept overlapping in his head.

When Makishima spoke, it caught him by surprise, even if it was just a whisper.

-          Sorry about it.

Toudou shook his head.

-          No, I’m the one that should apologize. It was none of my business. I went too far.

Makishima toyed with his can for a while.

-          It… it isn’t like that.

-          Maki-chan, you don’t have to tell me anything. I mean it.

Makishima grinned reflexively at the nickname, but the mirth didn’t reach his eyes.

-          But you assumed.

Toudou looked up and found Makishima staring back at him with a glint of anger in his blue irises.

-          You saw that and you assumed things about me and I know it’s your problem and your fault and none of your business, but still the idea you got is wrong – and I don’t want you to hold onto it.

-          Okay.

-          Shit, you weren’t even supposed to know about the existence of those pictures…

-          That’s why I said we can drop it. It was a low blow on my part to bring them up. I’ll pretend I never saw it.

-          But you did see it, and it made you think I was some kind of kinky gravure model and could you swear that that didn’t influence our judgement of me?!

Forget all about leading the confrontation, apologize and maybe part ways on amicable terms: Makishima was leagues above hi, on all departments.

-          It’s from a photo-shoot I helped a friend with, back in school. The one you saw didn’t make it to the final project, it was a candid shot in between poses. There was nothing sexual about those photographs, except maybe the theme of the portfolio, but that’s not the point. Actually, there could have been, and still it wouldn’t have been your place to judge me for it.

-          I didn’t judge you for it.

-          Didn’t you?! Really?!

-          I thought it was a good picture.

Makishima seemed taken aback.

-          It looked like you were comfortable and at ease. Having fun.

-          I was. Having fun, I mean.

They kept sipping at their drinks as the first rays of daylight hit the parking lot.

-          Sorry to burst your bubble.

-          Eh?

Makishima emptied his can in one long gulp.

-          No threesomes, no kinky, wild sex, no porn magazines… I’m not nearly as interesting as you made me. Maybe more faithful, but definitely more boring too. I would never been able to be so casual about multiple affairs.

-          Who’s having multiple affairs?

Makishima raised a brow.

-          …weren’t you buying bondage sets for a certain “Sasha” while paying for another woman’s lingerie? Like… a couple of months ago?

It took Toudou a bunch of seconds to put two and two together.

-          Oh my god. That’s… that’s what you thought? How!?

-          Well, you’re not the first attractive guy that is not very discreet with his phone calls inside my shop and asks me to wrap separate packages…

Toudou chose to ignore the fact that Makishima had just called him “attractive” in order to focus on what sounded like another core matter.

-          I… I was with my sister, that day.

-          Uh?

-          Hana, the girl that was with me the day of the bondage set. She’s my sister. It was actually her that dragged me to the shop that afternoon, she’s a huge fan of the brand, apparently. The card I paid with was hers. The bondage set was a thank-you-present from her.

Makishima looked like a statue. Toudou took out his phone and selected a picture of him and Hana.

-          You didn’t see her, did you? Because we totally look alike. People mistake us for twins.

-          So you’re not a cheater.

-          No! Well, if we want to be completely honest…

-          …yes?

-          Oh my god how do I say this…

Makishima stared at him, puzzled. Toudou blurted it out.

-          Sasha is a cat!

Makishima blinked.

-          A cat.

-          A cat! The devil’s cat, if you ask me, but her owner strongly disagrees an-

-          You bought a bondage kit for a cat?

-          I bought a bondage kit for myself, while my friend on the phone asked me to babysit his cat and buy her a scratch-post as a favour.

-          So… who did you use the kit with?

-          Myself.

-          But when you returned the next time you said it had gone well!

-          I lied. It was a nightmare.

-          What? Why!?

Toudou looked at Makishima for real, taking in the features he had learned so well over the weeks but that somehow seemed so different that morning. Perhaps it was the light of dawn, or maybe the knowledge that he was staring at a person far more different tanthe one he thought he knew. A new person that he liked a lot. A person worth looking a bit silly for. A person that had shared a private moment with him for the sake of honesty and integrity. Toudou had no excuses.

-          Alright, I’m telling you, but you are not repeating this to anyone, deal?

Makishima blinked, then smiled a little, almost against his own will.

-          Deal.

*

More than half an hour later, they were laughing together on the bench, threatening to roll off of it and holding onto their sides.

-          Y-You called your veterinarian friend!?

-          It was the worst moment of my life, I swear.

-          Oh my god he must love you so much!

-          They tried to call me “chick” after that time, but I refused.

-          Ku-ha! Can I call you “chick”, then?!

-          NO WAY!!!

*

-          How is it even possible to slip on a cat?

-          I tripped over a cat. And if you spend enough time with Ren you kind of stop questioning trivial things like “plausibility”.

-          He’s that kind of an older brother, is he.

-          Why, is there another one?

-          Wahahah! Knowing my sister, not at all!

*

-          But how did you free yourself?!

-          I told you! I had to call a friend to unlock the handcuffs!

-          The veterinarian again?

-          His boyfriend. Sasha’s other owner.

-          I told you to use the cuffs first!

-          I didn’t think the lock would have been so durable!

-          We guarantee the best products, thank you very much. …we can’t do anything for furry thieves, though!

-          Ohi! Stop laughing!

But Toudou was, too.

*

-          You’re the designer!? You lived in London!?

-          Didn’t the hair give it away?

-          Not really, but I should have known when you tried to push me into those lime hot-pants.

-          They were a hit in Europe.

-          Let those freaks do what they want.

-          How dare you!

-          I’m kidding. I think it’s amazing. Tell me more.

*

-          You own a ryokan!?

-          Technically, my family does. Hana’s going to inherit it, I’m a physiotherapist.

-          I’ve never been to the hot springs before.

-          Are you making fun of me? And you call yourself Japanese?! Give me your number, Maki-chan, I’m mailing you our special offers: let me know what you’re interested in, I’m booking you a good room at a reasonable price.

-          Are there really outdoor baths like in the movies?

-          Tell me you’re making fun of me.

-          Just a little.

*

-          How come we never ran into each other? The world of road racers is not that big…

-          I didn’t sign up to many races in high-school, then I went away for college and when I came back I mostly stuck to the amateur circle with Kinjou and Tadokoro.

-          Pity. We could have had fun. I liked climbing with you very much, Maki-chan.

-          …I liked it too.

*

-          …and that’s how and why I know that is definitely possible to survive on coffee and packed sugar for a week without extreme consequences to your health.

-          You are a monster.

-          I’m employed in the fashion industry.

-          And I didn’t know they were synonyms until now. Wait, is it my phone or yours?

-          It’s mine, hang on a second.

Makishima walked a couple of steps away and picked up the call.

-          Brother?

Ren’s voice was a deadly whisper that could cut through steel.

-          I was this close to calling the police.

-          Why? What happened?

-          I don’t know, you tell me: you wake up in the middle of the night, leave a note on the fridge saying you’re going biking somewhere and to not worry, because you’ll be back before eight and guess what fucking hour it is now?!

-          …quarter past eight?

-          IT WAS A QUARTER PAST EIGHT TWO HOURS AGO, YOU DAMN BRAT! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU!?

-          …usual hill?

-          I’VE BEEN TRYING TO CALL YOU ALL MORNING!

-          There’s little signal up here, you know it. I’m sorry.

-          I THOUGHT YOU HAD AN ACCIDENT! I WAS FREAKING OUT, CHRIST!

-          I met Jinpachi coming down.

-          Jinpachi.

-          M-Mh.

-          Jinpachi Toudou.

-          Yes.

-          That Jinpachi Toudou.

-          Yes.

-          You’ve spent the last four hours and a half with Toudou Jinpachi in an empty parking lot near the top of your mountain.

-          Yes.

-          Are you alright? Upset? Need help? Support? Should I send Tadokoro?

-          I…I’m fine. We’re fine. For real.

-          …are you still a virgin?

-          GO TO HELL!

-          TELL HIMTO LET GO OF YOUR ASS, I NEEDED IT HERE AT THE SHOP FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO!

*

-          Shit, I lost track of time.

-          Gah! Me too!

-          Did you miss work?

-          No, I have the afternoon shift today, but I had planned to go shopping and do some chores in the morning… will you be alright, though?

-          Perks of working on your own or with your family: you can afford a little slip-up every now and then.

Silence fell and they both looked at the ground. Anywhere but each other. Toudou cleared his voice.

-          Maki-chan?

-          Yes?

Toudou took a moment to appreciate the healthy glow on Makishima’s cheeks, the unconscious smile and the utmost perfection that was the man in front of him.

-          I had fun today. It was good, talking to you.

Makishima ran a hand through his tangled ponytail and took the chance to steal a glance or two of Toudou’s lively, sparkling eyes, his shiny hair, his dazzling smile.

-          I liked it too.

He watched enraptured as Toudou bit his lip and pushed a lock of hair behind his ear.

-          There’s a place not so far from your shop that makes the best spring rolls of the city. Would you… like to grab a bite? One of these days?

Makishima scratched his moles.

-          I love spring rolls.

Toudou beamed, and the world looked a little brighter, all of a sudden.

-          Would Friday be okay?

-          …Friday is a busy day, but I think I can bribe Ren into letting me out at closing time.

-          I’ll be there at eight, then.

-          I’ll text you if something comes up.

Toudou nodded.

-          Then… go, before they send a searching party for you.

-          I wouldn’t be surprised to see flyers with my face all over the neighbourhood.

They chuckled and Makishima stood on his pedals. Toudou waved at him.

-          See you on Friday, then, Maki-chan.

Makishima waved back as he started to move downhill.

-          Yeah. It’s a date.

Toudou forgot how to breathe.

Chapter Text

From: Arakita
To: Toudou

Ohi. I’ve given you a week. Time to let us know if you’re still alive, at least.

 

From: Toudou
To: Arakita

No time rn. Getting ready.

 

From: Arakita
To: Toudou

For what? Hanging yourself to the bedpost?

 

From: Toudou
To: Arakita

Date.

 

The ringer went off at full volume and made Toudou jump so hard he hit his head on the shelf above the sink and bit his tongue. He picked up anyway.

-      Yes!

-      Don’t try and act so aloof, you asshole! We’ve been worried sick that you were going to slit your wrists open in the tub and it turns out you’re going on a date?! And you didn’t tell me anything!?

Toudou smirked.

-      You were worried for me?

Arakita stuttered.

-      And you acted like a jerk!

-      Tut-tut. Since when it’s your business to know who I am dating and when I’m going out with them?

-      Since the moment I was appointed with the not-so-easy-nor-pleasurable task of picking up the pieces every time you fuck things up. Because you always do, eventually.

-      That’s rude.

-      Serves you right.

-      I’m hanging up, it’s late.

-      WAIT!

-      Tell Shinkai that I’m alive and well and let me go! I still have to get dressed and I’m going to be late for real if you keep me on the phone and really, I appreciate your concern guys, you are my best friends and it was selfish of me to ignore your calls and texts, but I needed some alone time: please, forgive me. The thing is, I’m fine now: a very nice thing happened to me a couple of days ago and I’ve been too freaked out and awed and busy trying to collect myself to call you and spill everything. And before you start harping on me: yes, it’s that important to me, okay? Not because it was some kind of love at first sight or anything, well, not really, anyway; I haven’t suddenly decided that this is the one and we’re getting married next week – do you think it’s even possible to get married in a week? – but I have this… feeling, you know? That I don’t want to screw it up, because you’re right, I screw things up all the time and I screwed up too many times already, lately, and this time it could go well – and I’d really, really like for it to go well. But how can it go well if I have to be out of the house in thirty minutes and you’re keeping me on the phone while I still haven’t decided what to wear! No, wait: jeans. The dark jeans are a given. The shirt is the problem! Do you think I should stick to blue? Because purple makes my eyes stand out, but I’m not very confident wearing indigo tonight of all nights. Black is a classic, but I don’t want the ensemble to be too dark. White would be the obvious choice at this point, but a plain white shirt makes me look like a waiter and wouldn’t a t-shirt be too casual?! Maybe the one with the noisy print? To accessorize with a scarf? Still, I’m going to need a sweater of some sort over that! And a jacket, since it’s still April and I’m baking there! How many layers are socially acceptable and don’t become awkward? Nevermind, if I go down that road I’ll have to match more pieces and I’m already so late and my hair is a mess, Arakita, a mess. You wouldn’t suggest leaving the headband behind, would you? Because I’m considering it and I’m pretty sure I would rock that option, but I’m just so used to wearing one, I feel naked without one and it wouldn’t be advisable to feel so out of place on a first date. Wait, I could pick the headband and put together the rest of the outfit starting from it. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Oh my god I can’t believe it’s already so late and I’m still on the phone with you what’s the matter with you wanting to ask so many questions at a time like this!? If tonight ends in a wreckage I’ll hold you responsible and… Arakita? …Arakita, are you there? Arakita, WHEN EXACTLY DID YOU HANG UP ON ME?!?! I’M LATE!!!

*

-      How do I look?

-      Fine.

-      You don’t sound convinced.

-      Because it’s the third time you’ve asked me. In the last hour.

-      You refuse to answer!

-      I’ve given you a free afternoon and you’re a fashion designer, for fuck’s sake!

-      I’m your little brother and this is my first date! Like, ever!

And if the words hadn’t been enough, the puppy eyes, the pout and the clenched fists would have done the trick. The fact that Yuusuke didn’t have a clue of how cute he looked made it even more irresistible. It would have melted hearts far stronger than Makishima Ren’s. He sighed.

-      What’s the problem?

-      How’s the hair?

-      What’s wrong with the hair?

-      I don’t’ know! You tell me!

-      Looks good enough for me?

-      Isn’t it too puffy? Bushy? All over the place? With a life of its own?

-      That’s your normal hair, Yuu. It’s the way it looks everyday.

Yuusuke let out a strangled noise. Ren chuckled and pinned together a bunch of receipts from behind the counter.

-      It never bothered you before.

Yuusuke grabbed two fistful of hair and faced him with a pained expression. Ren was reminded of a sick-looking Cocker Spaniel. A green one. He chose to keep the thought to himself, though.

-      Do you think I should pull it up?

-      Whatever strikes your fancy, I guess.

-      You’re being deliberately unhelpful.

-      You’re being unnecessarily bratty.

-      I’m aware of it.

-      Then quit it.

-      I’m nervous. Bordering on frightened.

Ren sighed and navigated around the counter to reach Yuusuke and take his face into his hands.

-      Be comfortable, okay?

-      Comfortable is hiding behind my fringe, but that makes me look like a creep. And I know ponytails are the best choice and life-savers in these cases, but they make me feel naked. And unkempt. I don’t need to feel naked and unkempt tonight.

-      You wear them all the time at work.

-      Key-words: at work.

Ren looked better: Yuusuke was avoiding his gaze and biting his lip, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He waited for Yuusuke to speak his mind, arms crossed and brow raised. It worked.

-      H-How about a braid?

Ren’s eyebrows shot up and it was enough to send Yuusuke on a panic-induced frenzy.

-      It would be weird, right?! So, so weird! Oh my gos how could I come up with such a stupid idea – this is not an ad, this is not a show, this is no Europe for f-

-      I think it would look lovely.

-      …eh?

Ren studied him, hip cocked, index finger under his own chin in a contemplative pose.

-      One of those loose things you used to wear back in London, at the studio, remember? On the side, practical and stylish. Cute, too. You have the length for it again, now.

-      We’re in Japan.

-      And you can pull it off nicely. Your guy wasn’t freaked out by the colour, he survived your outfits, I think he can stomach an hairdo. Especially one that suits you a lot.

-      Actually, about the clothes…

Ren pointed a finger at the tip of Yuusuke’s nose.

-      Don’t even think about riding my closet.

-      But you have normal stuff in there!

-      Stuff you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, under normal circumstances.

-      Nothing about the current circumstances is normal.

Ren grabbed his shoulders and shook him once. Firmly.

-      You two had an awesome time together in the middle of the biking routine. He asked you out while you were wearing a lime k-way over you electric blue jersey with neon pink polka-dots. You were drenched in sweat and I don’t have to tell you how stupid your hair looks when you get off the bike. Especially when you’re wearing a helmet on windy days. He wants to go out with you, and I know that it’s no more no less what you’ve been waiting for for ages, so calm the fuck down, go upstairs, open your own wardrobe and put together an outfit that you like.

Yuusuke spoke from behind his fringe.

-      …but what do you wear on dates?

Ren was torn between the need to facepalm and the one to bit Yuusuke’s bony cheek.

-      Something that suits you and looks good on you, but that makes you feel comfortable and confident at the same time. Although in a natural way.

Yuusuke blinked at him for a bunch of seconds, eyes wide but focused.

-      The Ren’s Design feeling?

Ren grinned in earnest.

-      Precisely.

*

Toudou came to a screeching halt in front of the bakery and dismounted his bike as if the saddle was on fire. Logic told him he should have taken the train to reach the now-familiar neighbourhood, as he always did, but he had felt so nervous that the mere idea of sitting idly on a train, waiting for it to bring him to his destination made him cry out in impatience. Thus, he’d hopped on his road racer, no matter his presumed (and non-existent) lateness, and biked at full speed across the city just to burn his trepidation away. He hadn’t committed a single infraction, by the way: it wasn’t his style.

Toudou thanked the deities repeatedly for his blessed physical condition, though, because no average human could have managed such an impressive sprint without dropping the most unattractive sweat, but here he was: healthily flushed, slightly out of breath and, with a quick work of travel-size towel, comb and deodorant spray, utterly flawless.

He took a deep breath to calm his poor, thumping heart (he was fairly sure it had nothing to do with the exertion) and steadied himself for what was going to come in a matter of minutes. It was going to go well. He was the epitome of charming and handsome and nothing could go wrong. He was happy to be there and even happier to meet Makishima in front of some nice food. Like normal people. Normal people that went on normal dates. He was good at normal: it was his element, and nothing could take him by surprise in his element.

Iridescent green appeared in his field of vision.

-              Yo, Toudou.

Toudou squealed.

*

Ren had asked him to take out the trash in a vain attempt to soothe his nerves and take his mind off the upcoming date (and his hands off his hair, most probably and most likely). Yuusuke had accepted with fake politeness, just to stop Ren from buggering him any more: it was a bit early, after all, and he’d been ready for what had felt like years. So, he had grabbed the cartwheel full of split cardboard boxes and bin bags and pushed it towards their usual collecting spot. When he had locked the cartwheel back into place and wiped his hands clean with a drop of sanitizer, he had seen Toudou climb off of his bike and had hind behind the nearest corner. The road racer, he was familiar with, after their last encounters, but its rider made him feel a bit self-conscious all of a sudden. Perhaps it was the dark jeans over the stark white sneakers, or the pristine t-shirt underneath a light, fake-leather jacket, or the shiny black headband and the shirt’s design – and the way it all clicked effortlessly together like pieces of a puzzle that was meant to be. Yuusuke’s breath caught in his throat and for a dreadful moment he was tempted to bolt away and hide into Tadokoro’s cupboard for the rest of the night. Because he couldn’t compare: the guy in front of him was beauty, the kind that could wear a second-hand, borrowed sweater full of pilling and made it look like haute cotoure; and he was all gangly limbs and extravagance and eccentricity. Man, he dyed his hair green and red! What place did he even have beside such a fine example of Mother Nature’s talent!?

But then said fruit of talent looked around with a panicked expression and rummaged into his bag until he pulled out what was unmistakably an emergency beauty-kit and started fidgeting with his face and hair and with the state of his clothes. Yuusuke smiled at the little towel and pocket deodorant – he knew what biking did to a body, no matter how trained, so he could relate to that – and chuckled shamelessly at the comb and mirror: it seemed he was not the only one fretting over his hair. He breathed in and felt calmer, somehow lighter. A bit like he’d done a couple of days before, in the empty parking lot in the middle of his training route. He slipped his hands into the large pockets of his cardigan (Ren’s Design in every sense of the word) and stepped out of his hiding spot, walking placidly towards Toudou’s back and clearing his throat once he was within hearing distance.

-      Yo, Toudou.

*

Toudou whipped his head around so fast that whatever he’d done to fix his hair got lost in the movement, then stilled so abruptly that he almost dropped the mirror he was holding. Almost. Because right after the shock and the embarrassment at having been caught grooming himself back to perfection, he felt the need to hold tight onto something, and the only thing available was the poor pocket mirror currently cracking under his deadly grip.

-      E-Ehi.

There was colour everywhere. It started at the top of Makishima’s green hair and ended at the bottom of his brick-red loafers, passing through a shirt of the same shade but whose cut should have been illegal and a pair of very blue Capris. And the… whatever it was that Makishima was wearing over all the rest deserved a mention of its own for the sheer atrocity of existing. It looked like the lovechild of Jimpachi’s grandma’s favourite duvet and Pollock’s Convergence. For an awful second, Toudou considered admitting defeat and bolting away. Then he blinked. Again, and again. And every time he re-opened his eyes, the colours in front of him blended together in a way that made them look… nice. He batted his lashes one last time and was surprised to observe that the flamboyant outfit in front of him… worked. It wouldn’t have on a mannequin, it wouldn’t have on a conventionally handsome male model and it wouldn’t have on a long-legged, female one. But it did on the peculiar and out of the ordinary guy in front of him, who fit into that explosion of pigments and cloth as naturally as the headband on Toudou’s head – and suddenly Toudou smiled, feeling a step closer to understanding and way more level-headed than before. When he opened his mouth, he only spoke the truth.

-      Maki-chan! You look good!

*

Toudou was smiling at him and Yuusuke let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, answering in kind.

-      Thanks. You too.

He rocked back and forth on his heels while Toudou secured the bike in its allotted parking space. Before he could chain it, though, a thought crossed Yuusuke’s mind.

-      Ehi, would you like to keep it inside? I mean, it’s a safe neighbourhood and everything, but if you’d rather not worry at all there’s some space at my condo, right behind the front door.

Toudou’s face lit up.

-      Really?! I mean: if it’s not much trouble, I’ll take your offer.

Yuusuke shrugged.

-      No problem. I leave mine there often. I prefer to take it home with me whenever it’s possible, but it’s safe this way too.

-      Definitely better than openly on the street, at least.

-      Exactly. Come, I’ll give you my reserved spot.

-      Brought the Time upstairs?

-      In the store’s storage room, actually. Flat tires: caught a nail or two on the way back, on Wednesday. Blasted both of them, almost at the same time.

-      That’s bad luck!

-      Biking is also that. Anyway, I rode on the rims for a while, I might have bent something. I was waiting for a spare moment to get it checked thoroughly. I’m going tomorrow, I think. Do you know the Kanzakis? They have a shop nearby. They’re cool.

-      Never heard of them, but good to know.

Yuusuke opened the door of the building and gestured Toudou towards the bikes of the other tenants.

-      Put it under the Makishima tag and nobody will touch it.

-      Thank you!

While Toudou fiddled with his Ridley and made sure he had everything with him, Yuusuke went out of the door and rang his own bell two times in rapid succession. A few seconds later, Ren’s voice came from the intercom.

-      What did you do.

Yuusuke rolled his eyes.

-      Nothing.

-      Isn’t it a bit early to call for help?

-      Very funny. I’m going out, okay?

-      And I plan on working in here all night. Not going to wait for you, take our keys.

-      Yes, mom.

-      Putting on the brave façade? I like it! See you later, pup!

Yuusuke slammed his palm near the speaker as Ren hung up. Toudou appeared beside him.

-      Older brother?

-      Do they serve any other purpose beside babying us and getting on our nerves?

Toudou pretended to think about it.

-      My sister always took the blame for my disasters as well. But she used to thrash me privately and blackmail me whenever it happened, so I guess it doesn’t count.

-      No, it doesn’t.

There was a stall in the conversation and Yuusuke put a stray lock of hair back into place, clearing his throat. Toudou noticed for the first time how pretty the ‘casually braided’ style looked on him.

-      Shall we go, then?

Yuusuke nodded.

-      Yes, let’s go.

*

The walk to the small restaurant was slow but brief, since the place was located only a couple of blocks away from Makishima’s shop. They filled the time with idle chatter, light topics that took the awkwardness away and helped them easing back into the familiarity they had experienced just a couple of days before.

-      How come you’ve never heard of them if you like spring rolls so much?

-      It’s hard to pay attention to restaurants when your best friend and his overprotective family run a bakery of that level and have made it their personal mission to ensure you’re not skipping a single meal.

Toudou thought of Arakita’s snarl as he dropped groceries and pre-cooked lunches at his doorstep.

-      They sound like good people to me.

Makishima chuckled, nodding slightly.

-      They are. Blew away the competition, too. Once you try their meat buns there is no going back.

-      I admit I have a preference for healthier food…

-      I recommend the pork ones.

-      …are you even listening to me?

-      I can’t hear you over the memory of that juicy, flavoured filling, sorry.

-      Alright, then! Let’s see if I can win you back with the power of fried vegetables!

-      So much for healthy food.

-      All is fair in love and war.

The opening of the door provided a much needed distraction. They entered the restaurant with matching pink cheeks and blamed them on the frisk evening air.

*

The place was cosy: small, indeed, and packed with people, but it didn’t feel cramped. If anything, the constant chatter provided a solid background noise that was at the same time a crutch to lean onto and a wall to hide behind, as far as Yuusuke was concerned. There had been no need for that, that far, but the knowledge eased his mind and he could focus on more pleasant things, like the politeness and speed of the staff, the tasteful decoration of the room and the unexpected quality of the food. He took a bite of the first spring roll and felt his eyes go wide as taste exploded into his mouth in all its fried glory. He put a hand over his mouth and to fight hard to stifle a moan. Too late: Toudou had caught it and Yuusuke considered hiding behind his bangs, before realizing that that would have been even worse. Besides, his hair was in a braid, which made hiding impossible.

But then Toudou chewed his own vegetables and sighed enthusiastically himself.

-      What did I tell you? Isn’t it the best spring roll you ever tasted?

There was something in his playfully smug face that pulled at Yuusuke’s own teasing nature, and it was so easy to let it out it almost scared him.

-      I don’t know, I think I need another bite or two to decide.

Toudou grabbed a bit of spring roll with his chopsticks and pointed it at Yuusuke, who had the frightening impression that Toudou was going to feed him in the middle of the restaurant – it was short lived though, since Toudou proudly popped the bite-sized morsel into his own mouth and chewed with gusto, swallowing before speaking up again.

-      Suit yourself.

Yuusuke dug in and enjoyed the expectant glances Toudou not-so-subtly threw at him. He had no penchant for theatrical gestures (at least not outside of a studio) and couldn’t for the life of him mimic Toudou’s habit of pointing at things, but he could exploit Toudou’s patience with a deliberately slow reaction. It also allowed him to enjoy the food at the fullest, which was a nice bonus. When he was sure Toudou was reaching his limit (he looked a lot like Josephine did when Yuusuke held a biscuit over her nose but ordered her to sit still for yet another second), he dropped the bomb with an evil smirk and calculated suaveness.

-      I admit they are the best spring rolls I’ve had in this city, so far…

Toudou’s face lit up.

-      …but they’re not the best I’ve ever eaten, sorry.

Toudou’s falsely outraged expression was so comical it made Yuusuke snicker.

-      No way! And you can’t say such a thing with a straight face and not even mention where this supposed spring roll heaven is, Maki-chan, it’s just not fair! Tell me!

The question (the demand, more likely) took Yuusuke by surprise, so much that he considered not answering. Not because he didn’t have a place in mind, quite the contrary: the words were on the tip of his tongue before Toudou had finished talking, and with those came the memories and the feelings and the certainty that he was going to open a door that was maybe best left closed. Still, Toudou was waiting for him to say something, and Yuusuke had always been a terrible liar and an awful improviser.

-      In Soho. It barely fit five tables and people had to wait in line on the sidewalk to order take-out, but their food was special. There was this… old Chinese lady in the kitchen, she could have been seventy or a hundred and two years old, I have no idea: she was the sweetest. Always gave us students an extra serving of fries or noodles, or an extra spring roll, in my case – she kept telling us we had to stay healthy and eat…

He smiled at the memory. Objectively speaking, the spring rolls he had just eaten were probably far better than the one he remembered: the vegetables were tastier, the wrap crisper, and they felt lighter on the tongue, not oily at all. But the ones in Soho tasted of a well-earned meal after a long day of fatigue, of home in the middle of a European capital, of small joys in between stress and anxiety, of friends and family, creativity and art, of freedom. Yuusuke realized he’d been staring at his plate, lost in the memories, for a while so he looked up with an apology already on his lips, but it died there. Toudou was smiling at him in the sweetest, gentlest way possible. It reached his eyes, painted them with a richer indigo.

-      You miss London a lot, don’t you?

The instinctive reaction was to lie and deny everything, but Yuusuke found himself captive of those eyes. Because where he had believed to find judgement or annoyance there was only calm, and genuine interest. It was the voice, mostly: suddenly not brash nor loud, but measured and almost padded. Reassuring. Serious. And Yuusuke felt safe. And he chose to ignore how scary that thought was.

-      Yes, I do.

*

Toudou watched enraptured as Makishima unconsciously brought a hand towards a fringe that wasn’t there, saw his fingers falter as he remembered that his hair was braided. Toudou looked away for a moment, unwilling but firmly intentioned to follow that tiny voice at the back of his head that told him to give Makishima space. It paid off, because after a small cough Makishima started talking, although his voice was so low Toudou had to bend forward to catch all the words.

-      It’s not that I miss my friends there – well, I do, but we keep in touch. And it’s not that I don’t like it here, because I do. On a certain level, the Japanese lifestyle suits me more than the European one, I guess. It’s just… I think I miss the freedom. Of walking around with green hair and the clothes I liked without people giving me a second glance. Of being eccentric and shy at the same time.

Toudou waited until he was finished before asking, politely:

-      Does it really work that way, in Europe? Do they really leave you alone, all the time?

He watched as Makishima chewed on his food with a frown, then changed expression slightly and finally looked back at him with a strange glint in his eyes.

-      Well, not really. I can’t say I haven’t met my fair share of… difficult people there too. But, I don’t know, it felt different. Perhaps it was because I stuck to my pack and my trusted places, where I didn’t stand out too much – or maybe because, deep down, I’ve always known it was temporary, so I allowed myself to go all out, all the time, because it was like floating on a time-limited limbo.

-      Maybe you are missing the academic setting. You know, that kind of creative, free-spirited environment…

-      …and the atelier, too. The kind of work we did there.

-      I might say something really stupid, so forgive me if that’s the case, but can’t you bring that here? I    mean, I’m no expert but I’ve gone to the city several times and there are many… ehr… eccentric people, there? And districts that they favour? I’ve seen fashion students around, too, and small companies. Don’t you think you could manage to move London here, to an extent?

Makishima eyed him again and Toudou squirmed under the intensity of his gaze. Then, he did the unthinkable: he smiled, and Toudou gulped.

-      That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

-      …with the sex toys?

-      Mostly with my brother’s clothes. They’re targeted to a very specific niche and could really flourish here, that’s why we’re kind of re-starting from scrap in that department, too. We’re trying to push forward both our brands at the same time. Our London base looks solid enough to manage our European market on its own, we’d like to expand here, in order to deal with the Asian one better.

-      And then it should be America’s turn!

Makishima’s eyes went wide and he choked on a shrimp.

-      Ku-ha! I hope so!

Toudou found himself engaged, despite everything.

-      Is it going well? The expansion?

Makishima toyed with his cup.

-      The results look promising, so far. I hope we can make it official soon. For all my pining after London, I really… like it a lot, here in Japan.

Toudou put his chopstick down and crossed his arms on the table. Makishima seemed lost in his own little world and it was an entertaining sight. Endearing, too.

-      I love that shop. A lot. I just… I guess I just love designing more.

Cute, most of all. So cute that Toudou had to hide his silly, besotted grin behind his hand.

-      I think I know what you mean. It’s the kind of attitude I had before they made me an official member of the staff, at the rehabilitation centre. I was doing all kind of jobs at the time, and only wanted to be a full-time physiotherapist…

-      Exactly. The thing is, I already did all of that. In London. Me and my brother, along with all the other guys of course, we have already built the brand from scrap, literally. Sometimes it feels a bit like having stepped back.

-      But you’re moving forward, aren’t you?

-      That’s undeniable. It’s probably the only reason we’re still functioning.

-      So, where are you going to be in a few months?

Makishima drunk a cup of tea.

-      Hopefully? Locked inside my own attic, buried in a coffin of green velvet and purple sequins. Don’t laugh.

Toudou pouted, instead.

-      I’m not. What will I do then, if I won’t be able to bother you at the shop anymore?

Makishima choked on the tea and took advantage of the time it bought him trying to come up with a smart answer and failing miserably. Toudou realized he’d gone too far and hid behind his own cup of green tea, blushing slightly. Once Makishima’s coughing fit was over, he looked at Toudou with sheer terror in his blue eyes. Toudou wasn’t ready to call it quits after one single, unhappy misstep though, so he tried to save the night before it was too late. Mentally berating himself, he downed the rest of the tea and retrieved a menu from the shelf behind him.

-      So, would you like to split some crayfish?

For an awfully long moment Makishima looked across the table with the air of an affronted cat, squinting his eyes at Toudou so fiercely that Toudou felt a shiver down his spine. An instant later it got worse, far, far worse, until Toudou realised it was not an intimidating technique, but the creepiest attempt at smiling he’d ever witnessed. Still, he ddin’t feel completely at ease, not even when the smile turned into a laugh.

-      Ku-ha! Of course.

…but at least he started breathing again.

*

-      Your ice-cream is melting.

They were walking leisurely along the river bed, enjoying each other’s company as well as the first (for Toudou) ice-cream of the season. It had been Yuusuke’s request that they got dessert outside of the restaurant: there was a small booth in the neighbourhood that in his opinion made the best ice-cream. It was his awkward, tentative way to send the message that he didn’t consider the night a disaster and it would have been nice to keep the date going, maybe. The fact that Toudou, despite making a bit of a fuss at themention of ice-cream in April (and at the sight of the flavours available, although Yuusuke didn’t know what could be wrong with the way his peppermint looked, an electric blue cream with orange-flavoured topping and white chocolate chips), had not backed down and didn’t look eager to do so was reassuring. It had prompted Yuusuke to ask questions of his own and as he listened to Toudou chatting excitedly beside him, he marvelled at how easy it was to keep the conversation flowing, to pay mild attention to it and not get bored or scared, to answer in turn and feel encouraged to say more, share yet another anecdote. How easy to turn Toudou’s most pretentious acts down with mock indifference and tease him playfully. He had the feeling Toudou was exaggerating on purpose, sometimes, testing the waters himself, but that was cool as well. Even when a joke felt o deaf ears or a disagreement led to an embarrassing silence, it was good. It felt normal, and carefree, and Yuusuke had a hard time remembering how long it had been since he had imprinted on another person so quickly.

-      That’s because you brought up biking, Maki-chan! How am I supposed to not talk about climbing routes with you?!

That put a small smile on Yuusuke’s lips and he tried to hide it by licking his spoon thoroughly. On his right, Toudou did the same and caught up with his melting ice-cream in a few practised spoonfuls.

-      That’s impressive for someone that claims to consume the minimum intake of sugar.

-      Everything I do is perfectly efficient Maki-chan. That’s the trick. It’s the same for the way I ride, didn’t you notice? I’ve perfected this technique, you know, and it really works for me: it’s a matter of listening to your body’s requests and being aware of its full potential – a good grasp of basic physics and biology and it’s only natural that a climbing style that takes all of this into account and exploits it is bound to be the most effective.

That didn’t sound completely right to Yuusuke’s ears.

-      I gave you and your polished style a run for your money, last time.

Toudou didn’t catch the warning tone in his voice. He couldn’t have done it, actually: he lacked basic information.

-      Just think of what you could do with a slight change of posture, Maki-ch—

The ice-cone crumbled under Yuusuke’s grip and the freezing, sugary cream made a mess on his hand, probably dropped on his shoes too, but he didn’t care in the slightest, because all he saw was red and all he felt was flashing white rage.

-      There is nothing wrong with the way I ride!

Toudou was staring at him with wide eyes and no little amount of apprehension.

-      I didn’t mean to imply that, Maki-chan, what—

But Yuusuke wasn’t listening to him.

-      They’ve been trying to fix my form my whole life and guess what?! I’m the most efficient when you leave me alone!

Toudou stood transfixed in the middle of the sidewalk for a couple of seconds, enough for Yuusuke, heavy-breathing and flaming red, to close his eyes in a fit of self-consciousness and to wish for a flash of lightning to struck him right there. Too bad the night was so serene. Toudou stepped away quickly, leaving Yuusuke behind, on the verge of self-deprecating tears. The instinct to run away and hide for the rest of his life was ready to kick in, but then Toudou stopped and Yuusuke realised he had only reached the nearest trash bin to dispose of what was left of his own ice-cream. As he walked back, Toudou got out of his bag a small pack of tissues and travel-sized wet wipes. All of a sudden, Yuusuke still felt like crying, although for an entirely different reason. He didn’t give in, though. Instead, he kept silent and let Toudou take his hand and clean the poor remnants of peppermint away. His touch was soft and delicate, typical of someone whose job was to take care of people, just… not as much as his voice.

-      You are right. Your body type is quite different from mine, after all. Pretty peculiar in itself: it makes sense that what works fine for you might differ a bit from what the majority of people deems the most efficient way. I mean, I perfected the universally recognized technique and brought it to the highest level because I’ve been blessed with the perfect body to make it happen…

-      How very modest of you.

Toudou winked. Yuusuke smiled, despite himself.

-      …but you were able not only to keep up with me on the hills, but also to challenge me like nobody had ever done before, and you did it on your terms, didn’t you? You know what, I don’t think I need anything else: it’s fine for me. Forgive me for my indelicacy, earlier. It was rude of me.

Yuusuke was finding it hard to look away from their linked hands.

-      No, it wasn’t. Not really. I’m sorry I over-reacted.

Toudou let go of his wrist and handed him another wet wipe.

-      It’s fine. It must have been tough.

Yuusuke was having trouble breathing properly. He wiped his fingers thoroughly while stepping towards the bin. Only after having disposed of the tissues and having taken a deep sigh, he spoke – and he made quite an impressive figure, with his eccentric outfit over a lithe frame, all long limbs and vibrant colours, slightly hunched and looking pensive, hands buried in the pockets of his coat.

-      It’s the reason I fled to London in the first place, I guess.

*

-      Once, I was this close to put the whole country between me and what, at the time, was everything I knew.

They were lying on the cool grass of the riverbank, side by side, staring alternatively at the running water or the starry sky. The neighbourhood was residential enough that light pollution wasn’t as bad as in other parts of the city, so it didn’t make the experience a complete waste of time. Not that stargazing was the main issue. Makishima had yet to say another word and Toudou, strangely calm and not at all freaked out by the weird mood that had settled over their date, had just nodded at his earlier statement. Then, he had walked a few steps down the riverbank and sat down in a spot where the breeze didn’t feel too cold. He didn’t remember patting the grass beside himself, or beckoning Makishima to join him in a way or the other, nevertheless, a few seconds later, Makishima had stretched out at his side, not looking at Toudou and still not saying a word. Toudou didn’t feel any kind of hostility coming from him, though, which prompted him to resume the conversation. He hadn’t thought he would have found himself sharing certain things, but if there was something he’d learned from the last months of madness was that in Makishima’s presence the events tended to take unexpected turns. And not always for worse.

Makishima turned slightly at the sound of his voice but Toudou didn’t do the same. Still, the little glimpse of Makishima’s white face framed by green hair and grass that he had caught in his peripheral ision told him that he’d just missed a very pretty spectacle. Instinct assured him it was for the best. Toudou hoped it was right.

-      Really?

-      Yes. Right after high-school. Everyone around me, all of a sudden, seemed oh so very sure of what I was and what I wanted and what I was going to do with my life and… it had never been a problem before, you know? Because I never really had doubts about myself, I was always the first to flaunt myself and pose in a certain way, I did it eagerly, I meant it. And then everyone just had all those… expectations and certainties about my future and I just… panicked, I guess?

Yuusuke was not acknowledging his words but Toudou could feel his gaze on his face and knew he had Makishima’s undivided attention.

-      It wasn’t that I felt like they were wrong about me, or that they were pushing labels on me that I didn’t want, or that they didn’t get me. There was a small part of that, yes, but most of it was me coming to terms with what I really wanted and, above all, claiming my identity back.

There was a small shift at his right and the grass crinkled as Makishima adjusted himself.

-      Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that I didn’t really want to help my sister running our parents’ inn, for example. It didn’t occur to anyone, actually, because I was just so proud of it, perpetually bragging about how I loved that place. And the thing is: I did, I still do, for real, immensely. I go there every time I have some spare days to help out and charm the customers… but at one point I just realized I couldn’t see myself in the picture anymore. I imagined the inn ten, fifteen years in the future, saw my sister and her husband running the place in the best way, saw a couple of nephews, saw many familiar faces, saw my proud parents…. And when I tried to see me, I couldn’t. It was just… the same Toudou Jinpachi from the present, and it wasn’t right, it didn’t make sense. It’s safe to say it freaked me out. A lot. In the span of a couple of days I didn’t know who I was anymore and everyone around me seemed just so eager to remind me, to show me how much the lot of them knew me, knew my place, knew better. I guess that the fact that I was also coming to terms with my sexuality, at the time, didn’t help in the slightest. Not when there were people already blatantly pushing their daughters at me, and not in the innocent way.

-      …is there an innocent way?

-      There’s the innocuous ‘Toudou-kun, my whatever-her-name is such a sweet girl, I think you’d get along, stop by for tea one of these days…’ and there’s cornering me for an unrequested omiai.

-      Do people still do that?!

-      As old-fashioned as it sounds, apparently yes.

They both sighed, quietly, and let silence fall for some time. Makishima broke it first, with a voice so low and soft it almost got lost in the breeze.

-      …then, what happened?

-      I was lucky. Despite everything, there were people that knew me for real. And my parents are traditional, yes, but I’d say a bit more open-minded than average. Must be the line of work, you know: dealing with people from all over Japan, not to mention foreigners, might do that to you. They weren’t happy at first but they understood that I needed to leave and that it would have killed me to do so without their approval. My sister was great. So were my friends: I ended up attending the same university as them, here. Different courses though.

-      No need to flee on the other side of the country, then.

-      No. A couple of hours was all that it took, in the end.

Toudou stared at the sky above, sensing that Makishima was doing the same.

-      I understand that it’s nowhere like feeling the urge to escape on the other side of the world and leave everything behind. And I definitely don’t know what it’s like to be told to be different, to be something else, all the time. But I can relate to the ‘finding yourself’ part, at least a little bit.

-      Do you like what you found?

Toudou looked at his right enough to see Makishima turning his own head towards him, an unreadable expression on his face.

-      Yes, I do. What about you, Maki-chan? Did you like what you found?

Makishima’s eyes widened.

-      I…

And a movement in the sky above them caught their attention.

-      Did you see it too?!

-      I totally did! Make a wish, Maki-chan!

-      Eh?

-      It’s the first falling star of the season! You have to close your eyes and make a wish upon it! Quick!

-      That’s ridiculous.

-      Hurry up and do it, Maki-chan!

It was hard to resist Toudou’s pleas when his pretty muzzle was scrunched up like that, eyes tight shut and the ghost of a pout stemmed from hope and concentration, so Makishima gave in and imitated him.

-      They wished for the same thing.

*

The question had not been forgotten, but the moment was lost. Yuusuke didn’t know how to feel about it, so he changed topic and went back to safe territory.

-      Well, aren’t you a romantic one?

Okay, maybe not so safe.

Toudou blinked once and for a long second it looked like he could choke, but it turned into a giggle and for the second time in the span of few minutes Yuusuke found himself smitten with Toudou’s gorgeous face and cute expressions.

-      Ah, you got me Maki-chan! Can’t exactly deny that, can I?

He scratched his cheek in an almost apologetic way and it bothered Yuusuke a bit.

-      I didn’t mean it in a bad way.

Toudou smiled at him.

-      I didn’t take it that way. Besides, you could have meant anything you wanted, I’d still be a firm supporter of romance, in whatever way you prefer to express it.

Yuusuke adjusted himself on the grass and turned fully towards Toudou.

-      That’s not a very common trait, nowadays.

-      People have trouble conjugating pride and feelings. There’s this widespread belief that showing that you care, being open with your affection, indulging in some tenderness makes you weak.

-      Yes, it’s an attitude I’m aware of.

Toudou mirrored his position.

-      Met a lot of tough guys in Europe?

-      Peculiar ones, mostly. Sensitive, I’d say, involved as we all were in the artistic department. But I wouldn’t know about romance.

Toudou made a face.

-      Pity. I happen to think it’s good for the soul.

-      Red roses and chocolate?

-      Thoughtfulness and sincerity. I know it’s weird to mention sincerity, given how things went down for us until now, but I guess circumstances were a bit different. Or not. Maybe I just have a talent for screwing things up.

-      Join the club. Besides, you’re not screwing things up, right now.

-      Neither are you, if we don’t take into account your attempts to sabotage my romantic outbursts.

The tone had definitely been ironic and the accusation was obviously false, but Yuusuke’s insides turned into a block of ice and all of a sudden he felt lost and dizzy. He knew it was just an innocent comment, a joke like several others that night. He recognized his own insecurities eating at him and playing tricks on his perception. He had no reason to listen to them, they were getting along just fine. Toudou had just shared with him a very personal moment, and it had turned out there were experiences they could bond over, in a sense. It should have been positive, and reassuring, and it was, but still the anxiety he’d managed to keep at bay so far overtook him, and he got lost in his own feeling of inadequacy. He rolled on his back, looking away.

-      I’m sorry.

Toudou sat up.

-      I was just joking, you know. I don’t think you’re screwing things up. It’s fine. I’m fine.

-      Sorry. It’s just… I am not good at this, okay? At none of it.

Toudou was on the verge of replying but was stopped by something large and wet hitting his nose and sending him toppling backwards. He went down with a gasp.

-      What was that?

Yuusuke propped himself up as well and looked at the sky: where a few minutes earlier there had been a stream of bright stars, there was now a bed of ominous dark clouds, but neither of them had noticed, busy as they were chatting and looking at each other. He held out a hand, palm upwards, and sure enough a projectile much like the one that had taken Toudou down hit it. Yuusuke spoke in a toneless voice, staring at his wet hand.

-      A raindrop, I’d say.

Toudou appeared personally offended by that bit of information.

-      What?! We’ve just seen a falling star!

Yuusuke stared at the clouds and pointed at them. Toudou took the hint and finally looked up, letting out an almost dignified squeal that in another context would have made Yuusuke smile, but at that moment, after the last exchange they’d had, went completely unnoticed and drowned in the midst of Yuusuke’s raging thoughts.

-      It happens, in this season.

A raindrop turned in two, then three, then a handful and they both searched for each other, even though Toudou spoke first.

-      What do we do?

Yuusuke blinked once and answered on auto-pilot, mind still frozen and no awareness of the possible consequences of his words.

-      Come with me, my place is near.

*

‘Near’ turned out to be several blocks farther than Yuusuke had estimated, which meant that they both reached the front door completely drenched.

The heavy wood closed behind them with a loud smack that echoed in the empty and dark hallway: eyes wide and breath laboured, they leaned their backs on the door and panted, staring ahead, then slid to the floor and sat on the dirty mat for a while, getting it wet and taking in the amount of water currently dripping away from them. Until Yuusuke started laughing, though it sounded broken. Toudou joined in, a much merrier chirp that resonated through the staircase at his right.

-      That was a mad dash, Maki-chan! I’m challenging those long legs of yours to a proper sprint, next time!

Yuusuke looked at his bony ankles, still feeling alienated.

-      I really can’t get one right, can I?

Toudou finally sensed that something was wrong.

-      You can’t control the weather, Maki-chan. And how is it possible that your hair still looks great after all that rain? It’s not fair that you get to keep looking presentable and I have to appear in public looking like a drowned rat! What’s the secret? Did you acclimatize with London’s climate? Get attuned to it so that you could walk on the streets without risking the ‘wandering bush’ effect?

Yuusuke looked at him and said nothing, but from the shift in Toudou’s expression maybe it hadn’t been a very good idea. Then again: lately, what had?

-      Maki-chan. I’m joking. As I was doing out there, ten minutes ago. What is it that it’s making you take all these little jokes so seriously? You know, it feels a bit weird to be the one saying this. Arakita keeps telling me I’m the one that always takes things too seriously. And I’m not, now. I mean, I’m this close to freak out and throw a tantrum at the state of my hair, but I haven’t, yet. So, what was that made you so worked up?

Yuusuke shivered and hugged his knees.

-      I’m sorry.

Toudou did the same but let their shoulders touch.

-      You know, there really is nothing you should feel sorry about.

-      I’m sorry that I’m not good at this.

-      What? Getting accidentally soaked to the bone? Considering your hair game, I’d say your far too good at it: I told you, it’s so unfair! I’m envious.

Yuusuke was starting to feel annoyed, more than upset.

-      I’m sorry I’m not good at this… – he gestured between them - …this thing we’re trying to do, that everyone apparently does, all the time. But not me.

-      You mean dating?

Yuusuke looked away. Toudou felt baffled.

-      You think you’re not good at dating?

Yuusuke hugged his knees harder and hid his face in them, feeling mortified and stupid. It sounded so idiotic and childish hearing that from Toudou’s mouth, in that disbelieving tone. It probably was, but he couldn’t help it. It was true, though: it was fine as long as they were bickering and chatting, or so it seemed, but as soon as they started wandering in more dangerous territory there Yuusuke was, completely unaware of other people’s intentions and totally oblivious to the weight of his own actions and words. He had never felt so inadequate before, or maybe he had not cared about his own incompetence at love so much. Why was that?

Yuusuke heard rustling at his side and was so sure Toudou was getting up and leaving that he gritted his teeth and faced upwards, if anything just to be able to say he had had the courage to look his responsibilities in the eye. He met Toudou’s, though, and it looked like he had no intention of going anywhere, sitting as he was on his heels. Then, Toudou’s hands hovered tentatively above Yuusuke’s knees, and Toudou searched his eyes for permission. Yuusuke curled into himself, which was the same as granting it, something that Toudou seemed to understand and act on. His touch was light and warm.

-      Were you not having fun at all, earlier?

It was hardly the point, though. It wasn’t Yuusuke the one that had to deal with a jabbering mess of emotional constipation, eccentric tastes and social ineptitude. Half into the night, somewhere between the third spring roll and the second of Toudou’s attempts to pronounce English properly, Yuusuke had known he’d got the best deal out of it: he’d got an unnaturally attractive guy who was also easy-going and charming, annoying enough to snap Yuusuke out of his shyness, gracious and self-aware enough not to get offended when Yuusuke barked at him. An actually interesting person Yuusuke wanted to put up with for a little longer, but could the feeling be reciprocated? If Yuusuke kept on demonstrating how useless he was at playing the game?

-      …were you?

Toudou’s thumbs caressed his bony knees over the trousers. Drops of rain fell onto them from Toudou’s wet hair.

-      I think you should start answering my questions, instead of replying with your own.

-      See? I’m not good at this.

-      Answer me.

Toudou’s eyes were so big and bright. So, so bright…

-      Yes, I was.

He smiled in a way that made Yuusuke want to bite those lips.

-      But you weren’t.

That wiped the smile away and put a frown in its place. It wasn’t a pleasant change.

-      Did I say that? Did I make you believe I was not enjoying any of it? Did I imply anything of the sort with my words, attitude and body language?

-      You tell me: I wouldn’t know how to read it anyway.

*

It was starting to grate on Toudou’s nerves, to be honest. One moment everything was alright and they were successfully navigating through more or less serious conversation and right after that Makishima was withdrawing more and more, without Toudou having a clue why. He wasn’t too keen on giving in to his own self-doubt, but Toudou could honestly not recall anything that might have triggered such a strong reaction, which only meant that he had done it unintentionally, and since Toudou was having a good time, honestly, it made him question his own ability to communicate. Could he be that he, always described as too direct and not subtle at all, had completely lost his touch and in such a crucial moment? Was he even able to create an impression opposite to the one he wanted to send? Probably not, which left him with Makishima and his peculiar perception of things. Toudou had the distinct sensation that this, too, was a matter of misunderstandings and gosh, was he tired of them. Even more so, he had been having fun, had been enjoying Makishima’s company and his snark as much as his more vulnerable side. He had liked seeing Makishima open up, tentatively and as surprised as Toudou was at being able to handle him and make him feel safe enough to come out of his shell. It made Toudou feel privileged. It tickled his nurturing nature and it made him die of affection. So, this sudden crisis was not only an unexpected setback, but it hurt Toudou with a force that shouldn’t have been so strong at that stage of their… relationship? and set alarm bells ringing in Toudou’s head. He was attached. Attachment meant involvement. Involvement meant that serious hurt was right around the corner, but so was caring, and that Toudou already did, and couldn’t help but act on.

-      I’ve been having a good time since we met near the bike racks. I really enjoyed hearing  your stories and I’m glad we got along so well you confided me some personal stories. I like chatting with you, I like bickering with you, I like it when you make fun of me without meaning any harm, because sometimes I deserve it, but sometimes I don’t, so I like it when I get to act offended and call you mean. I was happy talking to you, and despite the tough topics I know you were too. I felt it. But the mood changed drastically and abruptly when I joked about you sabotaging my romance. It’s fine if you don’t want to explain yourself, but please believe me if I say you did nothing wrong so far? That I had as much a good time as you did?

Makishima stayed silent for a while, then he spoke, but always without looking at Toudou’s eyes, face or hands.

-      You are a very peculiar one yourself, aren’t you?

Toudou thought of Arakita, and the colourful ways in which he had expressed that concept in the past ten years.

-      I have trouble abandoning people in need of help. Especially friends.

Makishima blinked at him.

-      Are we friends?

Toudou smiled.

-      I like to think we are. Still, even if we weren’t, you looked like you could use a hand.

Makishima bit his lip and Toudou fought the urge to do the same.

-      I’m not used to people being this nice to m-etchù!

*

Yuusuke opened his eyes after the not-so-grateful sneeze that had caught him by surprise and looked at Toudou ready to apologize only for the words to die in his throat, because Toudou wore such an affronted, personally outraged expression that Yuusuke felt scared.

-      Maki-chan...

-      I’m sorry! I swear it was an accident I didn’t meant to sneeze at you I would never do such thing it just hap-

-      …WHAT ARE WE DOING STILL IN OUR WET CLOTHES SITTING ON THE FLOOR IN THE COLD!? I’M THE WORST CARETAKER EVER!

-      Actually, it’s my house, it was my responsibility.

-      I’M A PHYSIOTHERAPIST!

-      And none of us is in need of rehabilitation.

-      YOU’RE GOING TO CATCH A COLD!

-      Yes, well, so are you.

-      Not likely: we Toudous have genes of steel. But you need towels! And dry clothes!

Yuusuke massaged his temples, self-destructive thoughts completely evaporated in the ruckus caused by Toudou’s Mother-Hen attitude.

-      Look, don’t worry so much. It’s just water, we’re going to be fine.

-      I don’t know what kind of antibodies you developed in that rainy wasteland but—

-      Over there! Behind that door you’re giving your back to there are washing machines: we should have left some towels to dry this morning. At least, Ren should have. I hope he did. Let’s check.

-      I’m right behind you.

-      No need to be so formal, it’s just a door leading to a laundry room.

-      It’s a matter of respect and manners, Maki-chan.

-      You’re afraid of ghosts? Because we don’t keep those. There’s a ghoul in the attic, though.

-      Very funny. I’ll let you know, we do have an haunted shed at our inn!

-      …and you’re all still alive.

-      They’re a friendly lot. Tourists love them.

-      You’re shivering from the cold, then. Wait here, it’s even damper inside, I’ll be quick.

Toudou nodded and hugged himself. It was clear that his wet clothes were getting very uncomfortable and Yuusuke mentally chastised himself for having been so lost in his self-deprecating thoughts to pay attention to his selfless guest. He hurried inside the storage room and ducked to avoid a faceful of Mrs Takeda’s hung underwear. That old lady (and her kittens) was going to be the death of him. Outside, Toudou sneezed. Even that sounded cute.

-      Hold on, Genes of Steel! I’m almost there!

-      I liked you more when you were silent!

Yuusuke actually snickered at that, and it surprised even himself, how light and right it felt.

-      Maki-chan, do you think it’s fair to just… drip water all over the floor= Shouldn’t we, like, mop it up?

-      Absolutely not. If we’re lucky, Mrs Hamada from the third floor will slip on it and die.

-      That’s awful!

-      She’s awful, believe me.

There was another muffled sneeze from the hallway and Yuusuke rushed to the drying machine where their towels should have been. It was empty. He cursed and, unfortunately, Toudou heard him, walking inside.

-      What was that.

-      My patience snapping.

The phone was at his ear in one fluid motion, before Toudou could even ask who he was calling. Ren answered at the fourth ring.

-      Need reinforcement?

-      I need our towels, but someone forgot to do the laundry, from what I see.

-      Ohi! I brought them down this morning and started the washing machine and—

-      And totally skipped over the drying part!

-      Shit, I forgot.

-      Yes, I noticed.

-      Yuu, why are we talking about our wet towels?

-      Because we got caught in the downpour and need to dry off.

-      Come upstairs, there are the spare bathrobes, you can take a shower.

-      There are no spare bathrobes. You tore them apart three weeks ago to make inserts for the prototype of the new jeans line. You were looking for, and I quote, ‘the spongy sensation that will absorb the nation’.

Toudou choked on a laugh at his right, Yuusuke rolled his eyes.

-      I was high.

-      Most likely.

-      For the slogan, I mean. The jeans are genius.

-      Of course they are.

-      So you two are soaking wet in our basement?

-      Exactly. It’s getting cold.

-      How were things so far?

Yuusuke risked a side glance at Toudou, who bent his head to the side with a small, questioning smile.

-      Fine.

-      Then just put your clothes in the dryer and get warm on the abandoned cot in the corner. Pretty sure it’s full of mites, but it might be worth it.

-      I’m hanging up.

-      Good, because I’m going back to working, so please don’t disturb me anymore. Oh, and Yuusuke? Put our towels to dry, will you?

Yuusuke hung up. Toudou scooted closer but kept a respectful distance out of consideration for his foul mood. Yuusuke had the feeling he was dying to laugh at loud at the absurdity of their situation, but tried so hard to not let it show. Bless him and his manners.

-      Older brother strikes again?

-      Believe me, I don’t understand how he managed to survive on his own for four years. His roommates probably couldn’t afford to lose his share of the rent.

-      That’s mean.

-      That’s true. I’m the same.

-      Well, this is actually cute.

Yuusuke glared at him, but it was made ineffective by the smug smile on Toudou’s lips. Despite his catastrophic claims, Toudou managed to look effortlessly handsome even in drenched clothes and hair in disarray. Even when sneezing, which made Yuusuke raise a brow.

-      …’genes of steel’, uh.

-      Even the strongest need proper care, Maki-chan. It’s pretty normal.

Yuusuke sneezed himself.

-      See? Even you London-tuned self is doomed.

Yuusuke rolled his eyes theatrically, made a very quick job of loading the nearest drying machine with their wet laundry (they were going to need them in the morning, after all) and fished the keys from his pockets – then motioned for Toudou to follow him. Toudou complied, but frowned.

-      Where are we going?

-      There’s a door over there that is connected to the storage room of the shop. If I remember correctly, we have a box of sample towels hidden somewhere.

-      Sample towels?

-      Indigo ones. Like those we keep in the restroom: it’s open to customers, you see. The company that we contacted to get them done sent us a bunch of samples to help us pick a design and didn’t want them back.

-      Sounds like a plan.

-      We definitely have spare clothes, by the way. If you don’t mind walking around with Ren’s*Flower logo over your heart for a while.

-      I’ll wear it with pride.

Yuusuke unlocked the door and moved swiftly to deactivate the alarm, then turned the lights on and started looking around in search of the right box. In the meantime, he found a carpet that belonged to his old bedroom rolled up in a corner (what was it doing down there?) and that he put on the floor for them to stand on, so they could get out of their wet shoes and socks, at least. At the same time, he tossed Toudou a couple of hangers for his jacket and shirt (‘Should I put it in the dryer as well?’ - ‘It’s alright, Maki-chan, it’s not that bad, the jacket took the worst of it’), shedding the overcoat himself and going straight for a fancy blue and silver cardboard box. Inside, there were a few polo shirts and hoodies, still inside their plastic bags. He picked two shirts and moved with certainty towards another box, golden this time, from which he retrieved a couple of medium sized, fluffy indigo towels. He brought everything to Toudou, who accepted it with a word of thanks.

-      My brother and I were thinking about having the staff here wear some kind of uniform: it fits the image we want to give. It was tailored clothes at first, then casual wear, – he gestured at the shirts -you know, more practical. Right now, we have settled on a sober, basic attire with the mandatory, embroidered apron, which seems a good compromise: it’s unisex and comfortable as well. These polo shirts here were samples as well: never taken out of their package. Tell me if you feel cold, I’ll get you a hoodie.

Toudou shook his head.

-      This will work. You’re right: it’s warmer inside.

Then he took off his headband, and Yuusuke forgot how to breathe.

*

Toudou couldn’t say he hadn’t noticed Makishima looking at him, but he couldn’t act on it too much either, busy as he was trying to steal glances of his own. Long hair was his thing. Green not so much, but god, did his hands itch… He contented himself with keeping his own mane down for a while and enjoyed the sight of Makishima from his overcoat and alien shirt, so very lean in a damp tank-top and skinny trousers.

-      It feels a bit weird, you know, to be here again with you.

Makishima turned to face him, towel casually thrown around his shoulders and hair down to his chest, braid undone.

-      After everything that happened inside this place.

It earned him a chuckle and it felt like the best reward.

-      Perhaps we don’t have ghosts in the basement, but that doesn’t mean this place is less haunted…

-      That’s a very poetic way to put it, Maki-chan.

-      It’s poetic until you step in the cloud of bad luck that floats inside these walls.

-      I thought business was good.

-      It’s a cloud with your name stamped on.

-      Rude.

Makishima didn’t answer and scratched his cheek.

-      Sorry.

He excused himself for a moment to check on their clothes, hung to a rack, and Toudou busied himself looking around, smiling every time his eyes landed on an item he recognized. Words left his mouth before he could filter them.

-      I really like this shop.

Makishima whipped his head around in a blur of green. Toudou loved the effect.

-      I mean it. I had never set foot in a sex shop before, did you know? I was full of prejudices. Sometimes I think I still am, although I’m much more prone to not act on them and reconsider them. Arakita called me a prude, guess he was right, at least a little bit. I was so convinced that it had to be… I don’t know… a place of perdition? Of no restraints? Of lost morality and perversion?

He sat down on a purple, cubic pouf. Makishima joined him.

-      Do you think that is what sex is about?

-      That’s the point: I don’t. I didn’t. And yet I was so quick to judge. Though, to be fair, I was also quick to change my mind once I got my hands on those toys. I know I said it was a disaster, it was, there’s no going around it, but I approached them eagerly. And I never thought sex could become boring.

-      I don’t think it’s a matter of boredom. It’s about curiosity, for sure, and the largest part must be the desire to spice things up a bit. It’s something that I don’t really get, though: you can create a diversion, so to speak, and not spice up a single thing, or you can turn the tables on your bedroom life without external support of any kind – but the bottom line for me is learning something more about yourself. Exploring who you are, your tastes. People should be more in tune with themselves: intimacy is only part of it, of course, but it’s a part we can help people with.

-      It’s a nice philosophy.

-      It’s what the guys that produce the toys explained to us when we met them. It was very similar to what we were try to carry on with Ren’s Design: staying true to your identity, embracing who you are with no limitations. And I’ve always liked designing lingerie, so…

-      That’s beautiful.

-      I’d call it a lucky coincidence, but yes, I happen to think so. I’m glad you agree.

-      More like a faithful coincidence. See? I didn’t know there could be so much behind a fashion brand.

-      But you wear clothes every day. Doesn’t it feel like you’re making a statement?

-      I understand what you’re trying to tell me, but I don’t think I’ve ever contextualized it this way. It was more the common, superficial comment of ‘Ugh, I’d never wear that!’.

-      And yet you proudly show off headbands, of all accessories.

-      They suit me, my hair and my solid ten-out-of-ten face.

-      It might be true, but I’m sure many people out there find them ridiculous.

-      Frankly, Maki-chan, out there is full of people with no sense of beauty.

-      People whose opinion you’re choosing to ignore even if they might be right, because you prefer to stay true to who you are – and the person you are and want to be loves the way he looks with a headband and can pull it off terrifically well.

-      Exactly.

Makishima giggled.

-      Then aren’t you making a statement with your style of clothing? And doesn’t it make you feel… confident?

Toudou stared at him with his mouth open and all of a sudden his chest filled with something new and warm, and he felt the need to let it out. For a couple of painful seconds he considered throwing his arms around Makishima’s waist and kissing every inch of skin on his face, but he opted for a heartfelt, happy laugh instead.

*

Yuusuke was pretty sure his cheeks (and neck, and years) were giving him away, but he couldn’t help the blush spreading through his skin nor the heart thumping into his chest. His hand moved out of its own volition and for a split second he was sure it was going to cup Toudou’s face, his body following, but he caught it in time and carded it through his own hair in a way that could have passed for casual, had Toudou noticed. But he was too busy laughing merrily, eyes closed, and soon after, Yuusuke was laughing too.

-      You’re right, Maki-chan!

There was a loud crack outside, followed by booming thunder, and the neon above them flickered ominously. Their laughter died instantly and they shared a panicked look. A moment later, they were bathed in darkness, the emergency light casting a greyish hue over the room. Yuusuke groaned.

-      This place is cursed.

-      You should say that the whole neighbourhood is. This kind of weather is hardly a rare occurrence, though.

-      You are very gracious about this.

-      I’m with you. I’m not missing anything out there.

Yuusuke was positive his face was visibly darker, even in the low light. Then a thought crossed his mind and he chuckled. Toudou smiled.

-      What is it?

-      I’m wondering if this place has somehow absorbed a bit of my attitude, after all, and it’s only trying to help in its own way: making an effort to reset the mood.

-      And why should it have taken after you?

-      Because last time I tried to help a lost child at the mall I made him cry harder.

-      I don’t believe it. You can’t make a child cry if you smile at him.

Yuusuke showed him.

-      Okay. You definitely can and I can’t believe you passed it on to these walls.

-      Don’t insult my shop. It’s very skittish and quick to take offense.

-      I think it is just a bit insecure, at times. And it doesn’t have reasons to be. Besides, now that I know it is only meaning well, although in its own way, I’m much more relaxed than before.

Yuusuke felt a bit enraptured, and stared wide-eyed at Toudou while toying with his hair tips.

-      There are unconventional ways of doing things, and roads to take that are not always the most traditional ones but… as long as there’s a good heart behind it all, what does it even matter?

Yuusuke was in awe, and he was sure it showed. Toudou seemed a bit embarrassed himself.

-      I learned it here. With the… ehr… toy thing. So, it’s fine if this is how your shop wants to help us. It fits. Now that you made me notice, it really does resemble you. It’s cute.

Yuusuke was positive that he was going to self-combust at any moment: he let out a noise that was as much a groan as it was a choked laugh.

-      Kuha! You truly are something…

Toudou looked a little out of his comfort zone, although pleasantly so, and Yuusuke hid his own awkwardness behind his palm.

-      Maki-chan?

-      Yeah?

-      Do you think I could take advantage of that hoodie you mentioned earlier? I don’t want to sound whiny, but it’s starting to feel cold.

Yuusuke hadn’t noticed, because he was too busy getting flustered, but the temperature had indeed gone down a bit, and their still damp hair didn’t help.

-      Sure: I’ll get one too. You know, maybe we should just go upstairs and dry off properly. Sure, my brother’s working, but it’s kind of an emergency…

-      No, it’s fine. From what you told me, he has a lot on his plate, let’s not bother him. Besides, I’d just like to wear long sleeves and cover my head with something dry. And… I admit that there’s a certain appeal in staying here. With you. Alone.

Yuusuke looked around and recognized the spot where he had innocently bent at ninety degrees sharp to retrieve Toudou’s butt-plug, the door in front of which Toudou was standing that time. He was glad those times were over, but on the other hand he could understand the feeling Toudou was talking about. It was theirs, misunderstanding included, and they were already managing to merge the bad memories with something new. Truth to be told, Yuusuke had no clue where that ‘new’ was going and where it would have stopped. He hoped not too soon, although it would have been fine too, all in all. Yuusuke didn’t trust himself to be able to charm Toudou enough, not with the stunts he had already pulled that night, but they were still talking and enjoying each other’s company, so maybe they could have stayed friends? Biking pals? He would have liked it. To keep Toudou in his life, somehow.

-      It’s…fitting, in a sense: I agree. Then let me get those clothes: you can wear them without fear, they’re black.

-      Oh thank god. Don’t misunderstand me, Maki-chan, I admire your brother’s creativity and your style of choice a lot. It’s just not my thing.

Yuusuke gave him the umpteenth once over and, as usual, his stomach fluttered in reaction to what he saw, but he had to agree whole-heartedly.

-      No, it definitely isn’t.

-      Ugh, you don’t have to be so adamant about it, you know.

-      I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Not at all. It’s… how to explain it… it’s a matter of lines. You have gorgeous lines. Not a single line out of place. And that’s exactly why Ren’s Design would look so bad on you. My brother’s clothes are not made for people so naturally radiant, so canonically attractive. You need… traditional clothes. Modern, fashionable, as stylish as you want but… of mainstream taste. Common colour palettes, basic pieces, no weird cuts, the kind of items that never fall out of fashion: the kind of dull wear that would look plain and unsophisticated on everyone, but on you and people like you is perfect, because they complement and serve your own beauty, not the contrary.

He had been busy retrieving the hoodies while saying all that, thus he was surprised to turn around and meet a Toudou uncharacteristically speechless, red as a tomato and apparently vibrating in unspent energy. Yuusuke bit his tongue and thought he’d gone too far, as it used to happen when he rambled about fashion.

-      …did I overstep?

Toudou covered his face with his hands and shook his head.

-      …geez, Maki-chan, you really are something.

Yuusuke covered his mouth with a bony hand and tried to look casual, failing spectacularly. He thought about what Ren would have said, seeing the two of them trying to out-cool each other and only managing to embarrass themselves in the process. It was comical enough to cool him down.

-      You know, for someone that brags about their appearance all the time you really are unable to handle compliments.

Toudou schooled his features in that expression Yuusuke was starting to love: it was half-haughtiness, half-pout and so inexplicably Toudou he should have had it patented.

-      Excuse you, I can handle compliments just fine, Maki-chan, I’ve been bestowed with compliments my whole life! It’s… – he froze – Nevermind.

Yuusuke frowned and pressed further.

-      It’s what?

Toudou studied him and blurted it out, flushing an adorable shade of pink.

-      It’s the way you phrase them! The thing you say!

And here they were, back to step one.

-      Are they… improper?

A flash of fear passed through Toudou’s eyes and he moved quickly, catching Yuusuke’s wrists before he had time to turn away.

-      They’re unique, just like you.

Yuusuke didn’t even have the time to flush scarlet and faint.

The emergency light above them exploded.

*

Months later, retelling the story, Toudou would still say he did not shriek, but he totally did, and Makishima did not make fun of him for that only because he was too shocked to come up with a witty retort.

-      Shit.

-      Yeah, pretty much. That lamp was brand new, I’m filing a complaint first thing in the morning.

Toudou hadn’t let go of Makishima’s arms, but in that new context it held a completely different meaning.

-      What do you suggest we do now, Maki-chan?

Toudou could feel him shift around to get re-acquainted with his surroundings. The tips of his hair tickled Toudou’s skin and he had to fight the urge to nuzzle forward.

-      We definitely have torches in here. And they are… over there. Fourth shelf from the floor, in a red box with ‘emergency’ written on the side.

-      I can use my phone as a flashlight, if you don’t want to climb up there.

-      No, I’d rather get them: it’s not fair nor wise to make you waste your battery like this, when you still have to go home and might need it. But you can turn it on for a couple of minutes, to help me take the box down.

-      Of course: lead the way, I’m covering you.

It meant letting Makishima go, but it couldn’t be helped: Toudou flashed the light on and did his best to clear their brief path. The three-step ladder was close-by and Makishima positioned it easily, then climbed on it confidently. Toudou couldn’t resist.

-      Pay attention? Please?

He was sure Makishima had rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t confirm it and his answer was enough to prove the contrary.

-      Will do. Please, keep the light up here now, I have to move aside a couple of things. i

Makishima was talking of rolled up posters and cardboards whose subject Toudou could not see, because it looked like Makishima was going out of his way in order to not let it show – even if it meant making awkward and tense movements that Toudou deemed unnecessary.

-      You can pass those things down to me, Maki-chan, if they bother you so m—

-      No!

It was so curt and bark-like that Toudou recoiled and cringed in surprise. Makshima seemed to recognize how wrong it had sounded.

-      Sorry. I mean: don’t worry, it’s not necessary. I’ve got them.

-      As you wish…

Toudou was not sure he wanted to inquire further. It was tiring, in a sense, to deal with such abrupt mood swings. Part of him didn’t mind: it was in his nature to worry about others and he took pride in being able to help in any way he could. On the other hand, he had the nagging sensation that Makishima’s sudden and extreme reactions had to do with something that Makishima didn’t want to share, a subject they had barely brushed, which both frustrated and captivated him. One of the reason being the undeniable connection they had established and their proven compatibility. To make it simple: the fact that Toudou really, really liked Makishima, now that they had spent some quality time together. What could be so huge to have such an influence on Makishima’s peace of mind?

-      …what did they do to you?

The curtain of green hair above him danced.

-      What?

-      Nothing. I was saying that you shouldn’t walk around barefoot, Maki-chan: you could get hurt, and it’s slippery, not to mention cold.

-      There is nothing on this floor that can hurt me, and I’m used to it. But thank you for your concern.

The box seemed to be free by that time, and Makishima put it under his arm, attempting to step off the ladder.

At that point, he slipped.

It happened in less than a couple of seconds: he put his right foot in the wrong place, lost balance and fell backwards. In that time, Makishima let go of the box (that hit the floor before he did and sent its content flying everywhere) and instinctively tried to latch onto the first thing his hands touched, which happened to be the bunch of posters and cardboards he had been so careful of. Tuodou thought they had been lucky: if Makishima had managed to grab the metal frame of the shelves, it could have fallen over both of them. Toudou was hit, instead, by nothing heavier than rolls of paper that bounced on the floor and opened up – so he was able to catch Makishima and avoid him a concussion. The height was not much, but the energy was enough to send them both toppling to the ground. Toudou registered a not so nice hit on his butt, but apart from that, everything seemed fine.

Predictably, it was at that point that the blackout came to an end and the neon lights above them literally lit back to life. Makishima, still in his arms, groaned.

-      Maki-chan! Are you okay?

The selfish, uneducated side of him hoped for a light dizziness, nothing serious, of course, just something to buy him time: despite himself, he was rather enjoying the feel of Makishima’s weight on him and the caress of his hair. The better part of him won, though, and he moved to search for damage when Makishima groaned again.

-      ….ugh. Fine. ‘m fine. Did I hurt you?

-      Not at all.

-      I’m so sorry…

-      Don’t be: just promise you’ll be extra careful on these things from now on, please. Besides, we were lucky, and it looks like the light is back, so we just have to pick up the things you brought down with you. I don’t know what was supposed to be inside the emergency box, so if you want to take care of that, I can just collect the cardboards and roll up the posters, wh—

Makishima shot up like a spring, looking as tense as one as well. Toudou noticed that his skin was paler than before, a consequence of the scare he’d just been subjected to, or maybe not entirely. He seemed frozen and incapable of moving anything but his eyes, that scanned the room at impossible speed. It looked like he wanted, needed to do too many things at once (running towards the posters on the floor, gathering the cardboards, hiding everything from view) but couldn’t decide on where to start. And because all of that happened in as many seconds as the fall had, Toudou was able to follow Makishima’s line of sight and discover once for all what it was causing Makishima so much distress.

-      We can fix it, Maki-chan, it’s just a bunch of posters: they didn’t even get ruined.

Makishima didn’t answer and Toudou looked better.

They were posters, indeed.

Of Makishima.

It actually took Toudou a while to recognize Makishima, but there was no mistaking the shade of green of the model’s hair, no matter how glossy and filtered the picture was. The thing was, it didn’t look like Makishima at all, and at the same time it felt like watching the most Makishima-like pictures ever taken. Like finding the most familiar taste in a dish you had always refused to try. Like meeting a person for the first time and realizing you might already know everything about them. He had been caught off-guard, but didn’t feel surprised or shocked by the lean figure in the posters, striking alluring poses that emphasized this or that feature. And above all, he wasn’t put off by any of those: the dresses, the pumps, the triumph of feathers, jewels, flowers, the excessive hairstyles and make-up, the sultry looks. Thebackground was just as rich, enhancing the colours of the flamboyant accessories and making the proud, black silhouette stand out. There was no away to avoid the call of those blue eyes, those thin hands, those impossibly long, impossibly white legs. It was ensnaring. And it was so unbelievable to realize he was standing right beside the person on the cardboards, that he had taken those hands in his, that he’d chatted with this marvel all along – but it made perfect sense as well, because this was also the man that had agreed to be photographed in a shibari for a school project, and Toudou was overwhelmed. By admiration, by awe, by outright wonder.

-      It’s…

-      …sickening, isn’t it.

It felt like an ice-cold shower. Even colder than the rain they’d caught outside and later Toudou would have sworn that the temperature in the room had suddenly dropped.

-      Maki-chan, what—

-      Go on. Say it. I won’t correct you.

Had it been anything like the previous times, Toudou would have handled it, but at that moment it bordered on scary. Makishima’s gaze was directed to the pictures on the floor but it was clearly unfocused and he looked more withdrawn than ever.

-      I didn’t mean—

-      --to call it sickening? Disgusting, then? Abnormal?

-      No, none of that.

-      But it’s weird, isn’t it?

-      It’s…surprising, I’d say. And not exactly common, maybe.

-      It’s terrifically deviant and you want to know why? It’s not because it’s an advertisement, people pull this kind of stunts all the time in the industry: it’s because I liked it, and I like everything it implies. What makes it so perverse is the fact that this is not a construct: this is me. It was me in the shibari picture you saw, it was me in all the catalogues I modelled for my brother’s brand, it is me in these banners and it will be me in the big, national launch campaign we’re shooting soon. Yes, I’m doing it again, because I love it. I love putting on eccentric clothes and flaunting almost two feet and a half of green hair. I love wearing fancy dresses and make-up, when the occasion arises. I love pumps and the way they make my legs look. I also love riding bikes and being comfortable around people. I’m self-conscious and awkward and shy, and I’d like it better if people didn’t stare at me all the time, even if my clothes scream otherwise. And gosh, don’t I love playing diva on stage and strutting around in excessive, purposefully over-the-top, flamboyant outfits! The starting point of my brother’s career was him sketching clothes that I could like and wear. The whole business of Ren’s Design revolves around unisex items of clothing that can suit frames and personalities like mine. That cater to people like me. Do you think I ended up designing lingerie just because it’s cute? Of course I did, but I also insisted on creating pieces that could fit any gender, because I like my frilly underwear and I wanted something that the market wasn’t giving me: aesthetics and practicality. At one point or another I think I put on every single pair of knickers in the catalogue, because I started making them for myself, mostly, and it grew from there, and now we’re using this concept for the next campaign, our big Japanese debut, and I’m both thrilled and terrified about it. Because it’s me on display, from now on it’s going to be me, as a whole, from the roots of my hair to the tip of my toes, and I love being me – but being me also implies getting shit for every breath I take, wherever I go, and no matter how much I try to tell myself that it doesn’t matter what people think and say, it’s… hard, okay? And it’s going to be harder when we make our noisy appearance in the national stage and my ass is going to be featured in the underground clad in lacy panties, or when I’m walking down the streets near the promotional banners and people will point and me and recognize me and see that it’s not a wig, that I’m exactly as I look on camera, and they will tell all kind of awful gossip behind my and my family’s back. And it wouldn’t be so scary, if I had some kind of certainty, of safety net. But I don’t. I have my brother, yes, and we look out for each other. I have our company, but they’re staying in London and the Japanese staff hasn’t settled yet. I have a niche market and people from selected shops, but they look up at me as if they would to a doll, I am their support, not the contrary. I have my close friends, and they’re amazing and supportive and just, so great, so I feel like a jerk only thinking this, but sometimes they’re just… not enough. And there hasn’t been a single person up this day that at one point or another has looked at one or more of my eccentricities and hasn’t walked away with an excuse and a weird look. And I’m tired of it, just as I’m tired of random people on the streets, in clubs, in the industry, into shops recognizing me from the ads and assuming all kind of things about me just because I happen to like green hair, weird clothes and fit the image we plastered on the ads. They have no problem whatsoever with models pulling the weirdest stunts on promotional material, as long as they make sue to highlight how different their behaviour is off stage. But show them that it’s actually the add that reflect who you are and not the contrary and even the most sociable of your interlocutors is going to find a reason to go chat with someone else, because god knows what kind of perversion you could be hiding under all that impeccable hair-dye. Or there might be people trying to approach you for the very same reasons, and I don’t know which kind freaked me out the most. And you know what’s worse? I don’t care. I don’t care about them, or the loneliness they leave behind, because this is how I want to be, and changing back into anything else would kill me, just ask Ren! I’m okay, with myself, I’m so damn fine with myself that I’m not scared of putting myself on display, but I’m also sick and tired of fighting my way down every road I walk because I dared wear a shirt with a not-so-clearly-masculine cut and I dared not stick to my plain-looking natural hair colour. So go on. Walk away and let’s be done with it. I’ve been ogled enough to recognize that expression, Toudou, and I’m telling you:  I don’t want to hear those words from you, too. That’s why I didn’t want to show you those cardboards, at least not yet and not like this. I guess it was just my wishful thinking that was keeping you from learning about it, since it’s only a matter of time before the city and the net explode with new pictures. And don’t I sound like the worst hypocrite, proudly declaring how unafraid I am of showing who I am, and yet trying so desperately to hide it from you… so defiant in front of the public and yet so scared of your judgement. It tells a lot, doesn’t it? So please, in light of everything, just… get out. Don’t make it hurt more than necessary. It’s not like you.

*

Yuusuke stilled himself leaning onto the shelves and looked away, too overwhelmed to hold Toudou’s gaze and too self-conscious to even meet it. He was acutely aware of his surroundings, ready to hear a set of soft steps and the slamming of the door on the other side of the room. Instead, he heard Toudou moving around, yes, but the sound that followed was the rustling of paper, then a shadow appeared in his field of vision – a shadow that shouldn’t have been there. It did, though, and Yuusuke felt his own heart race. Toudou spoke in a low, controlled voice to which Yuusuke could only answer looking up and listening.

-      The first time I saw you, I thought you were eccentric, indeed. That your hair was crazy, and that you looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I made assumptions on you, you already know that – much like you made assumptions about me. The thing is: now we know that they were based on misunderstandings, prejudices and false assumptions, indeed. Now we know each other, and I would never assume things about you without asking for the history behind something. Actually, I’m a bit sorry that your first reaction is still to believe that I will judge you for one of your peculiarities and storm off – it stings. But from what I gathered, it stems from old wounds, not from you mistrusting me specifically, so I’ll let it go for now. But only for now, because… I’m your friend. I’ve had a chance to fix my mistakes, I was able to see all the things that I’d got wrong and what was really underneath: I liked it a lot, and I think it will be worth staying. I know that it changes nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t find your hair weird or funny anymore, nor I do your clothes. They’re not classical, of course, and have a very strong personality – but so do you, and they suit you a lot. Everyone that came in close contact with you for more than halh-an-hour would see that, and if they didn’t it’s their loss. It sounds like your typical motivational speech, but it’s true. You can’t force people out of their idiocy, but staying true to yourself is worth so much more, in my opinion. So, you enjoy being a model, have fun with dresses and make-up and you appreciate unconventional lingerie: I’d say it shows, and it’s beautiful. You… you look amazing. Really. I’m sorry you had to meet so many creeps in your life, I’ve acted like one as well, up until a few weeks ago: I’m not anymore, though, and I’m your ally, if you’ll have me. And I’d love – he swallowed – I’d love to learn more about this – he held up a cardboard – if you’d like to tell me, that is. Not necessarily tonight. Some other time, maybe: we could have a ride on our usual hill, or jump onto a train and pick a mountain track out of town.

-      You still want to see me. Associate with me.

-      You make it sound like you’re a criminal. Why wouldn’t I?

-      You don’t think I’m a freak.

-      I think you are an unconventionally attractive person.

-      And you don’t think I’m a pervert.

Toudou laughed at that.

-      If this full-immersion in the world of sex toys has taught me anything is to be very cautious with that word. I like you, Maki-chan, I don’t know in what other ways I can make you understand it. I like spending time with you, it actually makes me both mad and sad to learn that there have been people convincing you of the contrary all along, that I almost was one of them.

Yuusuke’s brain had shut down at the ‘I like you’ part and he was well aware of how dumb he sounded when he stuttered, next:

-      I-I don’t follow you.

Toudou sighed, but it was affectionate more than annoyed, unless Yuusuke’s imagination, already running wild, and hope were trampling caution and self-preservation.

-      I think I unconsciously used to be one of those people that made your life harder for no other reason than their own close-mindedness. I’m not anymore. Because since the first time I saw you, you captivated me: not with a pretence of normality, pass me the term, but with your hair, your clothes and all your unconventional tastes and approaches. And the more my assumptions were dismantled, the more I came in contact with the real you, not the one I had presumed you were, the more attracted I felt. I mean, just your riding style is mesmerizing! You are free and unique and so, so passionate. You’re as true to yourself and as close to the ideal you want for yourself as you can be and… and it’s beautiful. You’re beautiful.

-      I like to wear pumps.

Toudou threw an appreciative glance at the posters.

-      They do make your legs look amazing.

-      And knickers.

-      …now, that is a thought that really gets to me in the most inappropriate way.

Yuusuke felt his cheeks burn, but apparently Toudou did, too.

-      Ugh! Sorry, I got carried away. That was unbelievably rude of me!

-      N-No, it’s just… oh, geez, this is embarrassing…

-      I know! Maki-chan, I’m so sorry, I just meant to say that I like you. I’m attracted to you, and it obviously isn’t just a personality thing. It has never been just a personality thing, I… I like you. Genuinely like you.

Yuusuke was breathing quickly, feeling the lack of oxygen and exhilaration mixed to mortification.

-      …I don’t know how to answer to that?

-      W-Well, you usually say thank you and share your own thoughts on the matter?

*

Yuusuke had the same frightened air of a deer caught in the headlights and Toudou acted accordingly: he was feeling raw and exposed himself, given what he’d just confessed, but the way he handled this was probably going to determine the outcome of the night. And not only that.

-      Toudou…

He was nervous.

-      …there might be another thing that I forgot to mention…

He was very nervous.

-      And I’m perfectly aware that this is not the right way to approach the subject, I actually never wanted to approach the subject unless it was strictly necessary, but I fear that if I don’t put all the cards on the table right now I’ll keep making mistakes and it wouldn’t even be fair to you, after what you told me… just, can you please, please promise me you won’t run away after I tell you?

Toudou was on the verge of freaking out, which meant that he couldn’t reign in his tongue even if he tried.

-      Of course, Maki-chan! I mean, what, are you going to tell me you have no experience whatsoever in any kind of relationship and that you’re scared it would ruin everything?

Silence followed.

A silence a bit too pregnant with unspoken truth to be comfortable.

Makishima was either on the verge of tears or sickness, it was hard to tell. And he was latching onto his hair like a baby monkey to its mother’s fur. Toudou felt light-headed all of a sudden, last pieces of the puzzle clicking together.

-      Oh my god.

Makishima bit his lip to stop it from trembling.

-      Maki-chan, do you—

Makishima crossed his arms and kept his eyes tight shut.

-      I am not the most… fortunate person when it comes to relationships, okay? I… am not popular. I also am not the type for one-night-stands? Too shy and awkward and undesirable at seventeen, than it got harder and harder as years passed. You can’t just… walk up to a stranger looking for sex and go out of your way to seduce him and then tell him to be careful because you literally don’t know what to do. It’s…like, the worst down-turner. I’m sorry. I… it makes me… look, it’s not you. It has nothing to do with you: you’re probably the most attractive guy I’ve ever met and it scared me to death to see you so interested in our toys, because the more experienced you were the more inadequate I felt. But then it turns out you’re a really nice person, with common tastes and such an approachable attitude… respectful, even, end it terrified me even more, because now I’m really, really falling for you and your perfection, but I don’t know what to do. Not even physically, because I’d jump on you right here right now, but I wouldn’t know how to react if you expected things to heat up after that, and you would be right to expect them, because who would contemplate a 23 years old flashy lingerie designer with a penchant for crossdressing that in his free time sells sex toys to be even less than a virgin!? I only ever managed to scare people away and keep them at distance, I fear my every move because I’m afraid that sooner or later one of them will send you away. I… I want to keep you so bad, but I don’t know how, and the more I lay bare for you the more I’m sure I won’t be able to – and the fact that I have as much experience on these matters that I had at sixteen when I made out drunkenly with my best friends doesn’t make me think straight. I’m such a mess, but usually I am a coordinated, self-aware mess – yet lately I’m terrified of committing even the smallest mistake, and when you are so unfamiliar with the subject it feels like walking on a minefield. I like you so much I literally don’t know what to do with myself!

Years later, when Toudou was asked how and when he’d fallen in love with Makishima, he would have recounted that one moment of trust and bravery, a warmth in his chest as flaring as the one he had felt then, when it had been so much he’d had to turn around and hide to breathe properly and push back down the relieved tears threatening to fall.

He felt too many things at once: relief at his own interest being reciprocated; hilarity at the prospect of his love-life taking an unexpected but much desired turn for the better; understanding at full picture finally unravelling before him; tenderness, so much tenderness for the man in front of him that he was going to burst… but also embarrassment and self-consciousness, because underneath all the love and cuteness that were blinding his vision, he was aware that one of his first thoughts following Makishima’s admission had been: “I JERKED OFF TO THE THOUGHT OF YOU RIDING LANGUIDLY A DILDO BIKE AND YOU’RE THE PUREST BEING I’VE EVER MET I’M AN OGRE I’M UNDESERVING PLEASE MARRY ME

*

Toudou turned around and grabbed his hands with a very emotional face and for an awful second Yuusuke got cold feet and felt the instinct to run, but the moment those palms closed around his the urge passed and he felt calmer. Or as calm as he could feel after having admitted to his very handsome crush than he had less experience in romance than the average teen. But Toudou just held onto his fingers and looked him square in the eye.

-      I like you. Like, really, really like you. As in: I would like to go out with you, to try for real, to see where this might go. I had fun today. I enjoyed being with you, every minute. I’d like to see you again. “And again, and again, and again, as often as possible, for as long as possible, but that’s just too stalkerish and if I scare you away I’ll never be able to look at myself in the mirror again…”

-      Then you shouldn’t say such things out loud, perhaps.

-      Shit.

-      It’s okay. I… I can relate. I had fun too. I wouldn’t mind it. Seeing you again.

-      Maki-chan!

Toudou was leaning towards him and Yuusuke almost gave in and closed the gap, then the  fear of the unknown kicked in and he remembered that he was actually an unskilled individual with a penchant for making things worse, too much to learn about reading situations and too much to lose at the moment to make the umpteenth mistake. Which completely explained why his following words were:

-      You’re going to miss the last train.

He swore he could hear Ren hitting his head on the desk, repeatedly, six floors above.

*

Toudou was in too high spirits to take offense and snickered at the cute display in front of him. If he found the rejection of his blatant attempt at receiving a kiss cute, he was definitely far too gone for his own good. At the moment, it all felt so worth it, though. So he indulged Makishima’s need for space and time (at least, Toudou interpreted it that way) in favour of cultivating something hopefully even better.

-      You’re right. I should be going.

*

Yuusuke kind of wanted to smack himself.

-      I… I’m not trying to push you away or send you home, I just…

Toudou squeezed his hand.

-      It’s alright. I know.

*

They stood side by side at the door, watching the rain fall. No more thunderstorm didn’t mean that the weather had stopped being awful.

-      Are you sure you don’t mind looking after my bike?

-      I told you: we don’t need that slot right now. And I’m not so poor of a host to send you home by bike in these conditions.

-      At least let me wash the clothes you lent me.

-      It’ fine. I’ll put them with mine before going upstairs.

-      You even let me borrow an umbrella!

-      And I gave you the most flamboyant one I own, so every step you take towards the station will be as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it can be. People will stare, too.

-      You’re so mean, Maki-chan.

Toudou opened the offending umbrella and stepped outside, but he didn’t manage to let go of Makishima’s hand, not yet. There was still something missing. Something hanging between them, but he hadn’t pin-pointed what, exactly.

-      I have a shift in the afternoon, tomorrow, but we always finish early on Saturdays. You guys are going to be busy until late, in here?

-      Yes, I think so. Saturday evenings are crazy…

-      What about your Sundays?

-      Lazy. No chores on schedule, no deliveries, few customers. We usually use them as alternate free days.

-      Whose turn is, this time?

-      Mine.

-      Want to go for a ride uphill? We can have lunch at the peak.

-      They make very good soups there.

-      Then it’s a deal.

-      I guess it is.

*

Yuusuke was delaying the inevitable, so when it was time for the final goodbyes he braced himself for what was to come. And breath got stuck in his throat when Toudou lifted their still joined hands and kissed his knuckles, just like that. A soft, dry press of lips that lasted seconds and felt far more intimate than anything Yuusuke had ever done. Surprise must have shown on his face. He had the feeling his mouth still hung open. Toudou himself looked flustered. He kept smiling and looking at their fingers, thumb caressing the back of Yuusuke’s hand, until he felt brave enough to meet Yuusuke’s gaze.

-      I… I don’t want to rush it, rush you, rush… anything. It feels like we rushed a lot of things so far… I’d like to do this right, from now on. Does it make any sense?

Yuusuke nodded, and after another squeeze Toudou hit the road, murmuring a ‘goodnight’ and heading for the station. Yuusuke wanted to wait until turned the corner, or so he told himself as he watched Toudou’s retreating back. He felt both incredibly relieved and incredibly stupid when Toudou turned around to try and steal a last glance himself and their eyes met again. Yuusuke wanted to laugh, he actually did, pushing back his fringe, and was answered by Toudou’s own chuckle and a last wave.

And all of a sudden, it wans’t enough. It was not even remotely enough.

Yuusuke’s body moved on its own accord. He didn’t realise he was running outside until water soaked his shoes again and trickled down his shirt. He didn’t realise he was speaking until he heard his own voice calling:

-      Toudou! …Jinpachi!

*

Toudou was still giggling to himself and humming happily when he heard his name over the sound of the rain. He turned, and had just enough time to take in the fact that Makishima was running towards him before Makishima’s hands were on the sides of his face, his body pressing close, and before Makishima’s lips touched his own. He let the umbrella go, but didn’t even notice the rain falling over the two of them again. It was chaste, and tentative, and shy, and seeking for approval and Toudou did not dare move in fear of breaking the magic. Makishima pulled away first, but didn’t let him go. Didn’t even step back, almost reluctant to put space between their bodies.

-      I’m sor—wait, I’m not. Not really. I mean, I don’t want to rush it either, but this isn’t rushing? Doesn’t feel like it, anyway. I wouldn’t mind it if – you don’t have to worry about – geez, I’m so awful at this th—

He didn’t get to finish the sentence, because Toudou quite literally jumped on him and enveloped him fully.

Way to go, Jinpachi” he told himself “Not even together yet and you’re already forgetting all your principles and doing crazy stuff for him”.

But he had been pulling crazy stunts and challenged his behaviour and attitude from the very first time he had met Makishima, and considering what those experimentations had brought forth and entailed, snogging like teenagers under the pouring rain and right out of Makishima’s front door was hardly controversial. Yet there was something extremely controversial in the way his arms could wrap around Makishima’s lithe waist and back, in the way their bodies fit against each other, in the way their wet clothes clang to their frames and caused friction, in Makishima’s long, thin arms locked around his neck, in the softness of his white throat, in the smell of him that mingled with Toudou’s own and with the ones that the rain enhanced. For the first time after what felt like a lifetime (it probably was) Toudou felt drunk, of something he’d been longing for for far too long.

*

Yuusuke felt dizzy and drunk like he’d never been, but it was a much wanted, much needed sickness and he basked in the lightness that filled his chest. He knew he was being excessive, and clingy, but Toudou wasn’t backing down (indeed, it had been Toudou to push him against the wall for support) and it was the sensation of being desired and sincerely wanted that did it for him, more than anything.

So much for feeling shy, Yuusuke” he told himself “Not even together yet and you’re already itching to grope him and take him home…

But it was more than that. It was exhilaration that made him bolder and unafraid, despite the inexperience; it was thirst for touch after having been deprived for so long; it was safety, and open arms; it was a need to go deeper, to leave a mark, to be recognized, to claim something for himself, to get what he wanted or at the very least being acknowledged, to form a connection. A deep, meaningful one. It was a new desire for him, an alien thing to aim for, but one that had bugged at the back of his mind since the first time he had met Toudou, and decided he needed to make an impression on him.

Then Toudou kissed his neck and he stopped thinking altogether.

*

-      I think you definitely missed the last train.

Toudou groaned and leaned onto Makishima, stealing another chaste kiss.

-      Ugh… by, like, a mile.

He buried his face between Makishima’s neck and shoulder, saying nothing.

-      …what are you doing?

-      Mentally recalling all of my semi-close friends to remember if one of them lives nearby or owns at least a scooter.

-      …I live right here.

Toudou looked up in confusion, wonder and shock.

-      You can… take a shower, and dry properly. We even have fresh towels now. I can… lend you something to wear for the night. We can have an early rise and you can go catch the first train right after breakfast. …how does it sound?

The tremble at the corner of Makishima’s mouth betrayed his anxiety and Toudou tried to kiss it away softly. Repeatedly. It worked, and he touched their wet foreheads together, enjoying the warm weight in his arms and talking directly to his lips.

-      Perfect. It sounds perfect.

***

Despite any pretence of the contrary, Ren Makishima was not a meddling brother. A supportive, sarcastic and overprotective one, maybe, but he believed in letting chicks make their own choices and experiences, and eventually being prepared and equipped to pick up the pieces and put them back together if they happened to make the wrong one.

So, when he had heard two sets of steps, muffles as they were, down the corridor of their floor, he had left a quick note to Yuusuke, gathered his laptop and documents and moved from the living-room to his own bedroom. Then, once he was sure Yuusuke and his guest were locked in their own side of the flat, he picked up all his stuff and headed for the apartment opposite the one they lived in. He was planning to work for another bunch of hours anyway. Besides, the convertible sofa in there was pretty comfortable, too.

Before locking the door behind him for good, he’d blown a kiss at his brother’s door. For good luck, of course.

*

Come morning, he woke up at the usual hour and was surprised to hear movements on the other side of the corridor. He waited until the door closed and the voices got louder at first, then vanished down the stairs. They sounded muffled, but cheerful enough, and Ren thought he could pick up faint laughter, which eased his mind a bit. As soon as the road was clear, he went back to his own flat and raised a brow at the neatness of it all. The table was even set for him, with a thank-you note that promised pastries from Tadokoro’s bakery.

Ren poured himself some freshly made tea: it was his favourite blend, still hot, brewed in that perfect way Yuusuke had never mastered. Then he grabbed a biscuit from their cookie jar and did what the unwritten protocol for older brothers foresaw: he perched on the windowsill and tried to spy on his menace of a younger sibling.

He managed to catch a glimpse of green hair as Yuusuke and that Toudou entered Tadokoro’s bakery, but the angle wasn’t right and he barely saw them heading out, several minutes later. He was, though, able to witness the following scene, the one of them getting Toudou’s bike in the road and having an apparently interesting chat about its frame. Man, that Toudou was really  an handsome one. And Yuusuke was definitely smitten with him, from his body language and the languid eyes he made at him. What positively surprised Ren, though, was that Toudou looked pretty much as smitten himself, and very much unable to keep his hands off Yuusuke in that cute, harmless way that melted even overprotective brothers’ hearts. The fact that Yuusuke didn’t shy away from the touches, but welcomed them eagerly and leaned into them and tentatively reciprocated them sealed the deal, in his opinion.

Ren sipped his tea as the pups checked the street thoroughly, and almost spit out a mouthful of it when Toudou leaned in for an innocent peck on Yuusuke’s lips. Yuusuke gave it back, of course he did, and they got closer as they kissed. At long last (at least for Ren’s standards) they pulled apart, reluctantly, and Toudou hooped definitely on his bike and pedalled away, waving goodbye with a cheerful smile that made even Ren feel a little bothered. Yuusuke waved back and went inside. At that point, Ren rushed to the bathroom to avoid getting caught.

He came out minutes later, toothbrush in his mouth, to the sight of Tadokoro’s bagels and coffee on the table, and Yuusuke curled up in front of the door, giggling to himself. He noticed Ren and tried to control the corners of his mouth, then hid behind his palms when he failed. It was as creepy as it was cute.

-      …soooo, I get it went well?

Yuusuke nodded.

-      …did you two…?

Yuusuke shook his head.

-      Wait. He slept here and you didn’t…

Yuusuke shook his head again.

-      And it was… you know… a mutual decision?

Yuusuke nodded.

-      You’re seeing each other again, I presume? Like, very soon, on bikes?

Yuusuke nodded. Ren made a mental note of giving him the time to have his bike checked and fixed at Kanzaki’s.

-      You like him a lot.

Yuusuke nodded and his ears went red.

-      He likes you quite a lot too.

Yuusuke nodded and tapped his feet on the floor.

-      Oh my god. You found a good one, Yuu!

Yuusuke lowered his hands enough to reveal a pair of twinkling blue eyes. Ren threw his hands up and made a move for the nearest bagel. He felt excited too.

As his brother was lost in the tide of first love, Ren sniffed the coffee and opted for another cup of the wonderful, miraculous tea. Even after cooling down a bit, it was still as good as before.

-      Yuusuke, darling, did you by any chance let that Toudou guy of yours brew my favourite tea, this morning?

Yuusuke looked up, worried, and nodded tentatively. Ren poured a cup for him too and made a show of enjoying his own. It didn’t take any kind of effort.

-      Please, please let’s keep him.

 

Chapter Text

Toudou woke up to what was meant to be a lazy morning. The other side of the bed was empty, that much he could feel with his eyes still closed. Refusing to open them, Toudou rolled leisurely across the mattress and inhaled deeply: the scent of his lover filled his nostrils and he hummed in contentment.

He could make out the soft background noise of merry jingles and excited chatter – the tv must have been on – punctuated every now and then by the clinking of china and cutlery on the kitchen counter – breakfast must have been on the making too, a thought that touched him deeply.

Predictably, the soft sound of naked feet padding on the floor followed soon, and Toudou opened his eyes just in time to see Makishima leaning on the doorway, clad in a light sweater that reached his mid-thighs and cradling a still steaming cup of tea. Toudou sighed at the sight of the huge mane of green hair let loose and untamed, a sign of trust and comfort if he ever saw one. He let out a playful whine and made grabbing motions with his hands in the direction of his lover: Makishima stopped in the middle of taking a sip of tea, made a point of rolling his eyes with a theatrical huff, but ultimately complied with the pretty explicit request and approached the bed, putting the mug on the nearest nightstand. Toudou frowned.

-              What? No breakfast in bed?

-              Why, are you sick?

-              So mean, Maki-chan…

But it was futile to look for animosity in either of them when, as soon as Makishima sat on the bed, Toudou brought him down on the pillows, hugged his waist and buried his face in Makishima’s stomach; when Makishima himself didn’t utter a single word of protest and hugged Toudou back instead, arms around his shoulders and fingers in his hair.

-              There’s some rice on the table. And I made you an omelette.

-              Burnt to what degree?

Makishima pinched his thigh, Toudou yelped.

-              Who’s being mean now?!

Toudou crawled up and kissed him thoroughly. Makishima didn’t even complain about morning breath, which was a testament to his level of mellowness.

-              Thanks. I’ll go eat in a moment. I’m just taking advantage of you for another couple of minutes.

-              You’ve been taking advantage of me since last night.

-              And I didn’t hear complaints from you, Maki-chan.

-              Because I had none. But didn’t you have enough?

Toudou sighed and tried to snuggle under Makishima’s shirt: he only made it as far as Makishima’s navel before finding himself tucked under his boyfriend’s chin. He decided that, all in all, the new position suited him just as fine and smiled into Makishima’s neck.

-              Of course not. I missed you like crazy these days.

“These days” was a very nice way to put it, since they hadn’t had time to shamelessly indulge themselves and enjoy each other’s company in weeks. Makishima stiffened, and Toudou heard his heart accelerate.

-              …I’m sorry?

Toudou lifted his head and mouthed into Makishima’s cheek, caressing his sides.

-              Don’t be. It comes with being the proud boyfriend of a rising star of the fashion industry. Were they talking about you on the tv?

-              They were talking about Sachiko-san’s latest videos and recommendations so… yes, in a sense, I guess?

-              Is she going to be your front girl now?

-              Only on special occasions. Like, ugh, Valentine’s.

Toudou rubbed his cheek energetically onto Makishima’s shoulder, clad in wool, and wrapped his legs around Makishima’s hips.

-              Are you very subtly implying that we’re both going to be lonely on Valentine’s?

-              Nope. At least, not in the evening.

-              Oh, thank the gods!

Makishima sighed a bit himself and pressed his dry lips onto Toudou’s forehead. He closed his eyes and let out a soft hum as warmth and softness flowed through him. Christmas was gone and New Year’s Eve was just around the corner, then only a month and a half separated them from February 14th – and if you sold lingerie for a living it meant that it was the absolutely worst moment of the year to waste time on your boyfriend’s bed. But Makishima had never had a boyfriend, not to mention one with such a comfortable bed, and he wasn’t willing to give up his favourite holiday completely. He had been the most gracious guest and host of fabulous Christmas gatherings, had already confirmed his and Ren’s presence at the most exclusive New Year’s party, was neck.-deep in deadlines for their imminent Valentine’s showdown and spring events and the mere thought of checking his mailbox and the activity of their online store was enough to give him a headache. So, he did his best to push every stressful incumbency out of his mind and tried to wriggle more under Toudou.

-              Where are you going, Maki-chan?

-              Where anxiety can’t reach me.

-              And why would that be ben- oh.

He could barely see Makishima’s eyes peeking out from a nest of green hair and white wool.

-              What.

Toudou grabbed him and made a quick job of reversing their position until he had Makishima safely tucked in front of him, although a bit disgruntled. It all went smoothly because Makishima was complacent, of course. Toudou spoke with his face pressed onto Makishima’s sweater, mouth full of wild green locks.

-              How come you can be so deliberately caustic and so unconsciously cute at the same time?!

Makishima pretended to think about it.

-              I have to keep you on your toes.

-              You are terrible for my blood pressure. You’re so lucky I’m so in love with you!

-              I know.

Toudou bit his ear.

-              Wrong answer. We talked about it.

Makishima squirmed under Toudou’s hands, sighed at the kisses on his temple and cheek and rolled his eyes in fake exasperation, holding tightly onto Toudou’s arms. The message passed.

*

They were sitting side by side on the grass, the same spot they had occupied more or less a couple of months before. At first glance it could have looked like nothing had changed, but it had. It was the same picture, and yet everything about it felt different. They were not alone, for instance: children were running up and down the riverbank, chasing each other with sparkles in their hands, young girls in groups of three or four drew heart shapes in the air with the same fireworks and took pictures, giggling madly. Most of them wore a yukata, and the whole neighbourhood was in the streets, enjoying the warm summer air and Tanabata celebrations.

It was Makishima’s birthday and they were a couple.

A few feet at Toudou’s right, Arakita was sipping absent-mindedly from a bottle of Bepsi, a blank expression of boredom as he glanced slightly at Shinkai, who was busy sharing street-food with Tadokoro and comparing their personal favourites. Toudou suspected there was also a silent competition going on, an unspoken challenge to see who would have out-eaten the other. At some point, Arakita searched for a distraction at his left, only to find Kinjou trying to force-feed anmitsu to a reluctant Fukutomi, put down by the obvious lack of apples in the fruity dessert. With a theatrical roll of eyes, Arakita focused in front of himself and finally grinned that wolfish grin of his. Toudou followed his line of sight and met Manami, who was having fun with Onoda and his friends, all of them busy laughing about the matching masks they had bought as a joke. Makishima had one too, a gift from his pupil, a spider-character from a popular tv-series, apparently. It was a cute gesture in his opinion (an in Makishima’s too, given the spark in his eyes) and, paradoxically, it was a good match to the colours of Makishima’s yukata – unmistakeably the love child of a blind painter and a drunken tailor. Needless to say, it hugged and complimented Makishima’s frame like no item of traditional clothing could have hoped to do, and Toudou loved looking at him like that. Still, things were not as okay as they could be: there was a lingering tension between them, tangible every time their shoulders brushed against each other. Perhaps Toudou was wrong to consider it an invalidation, they hadn’t had a real fight after all, but their friends had arrived before they could settle the matter, and the core of the discussion bothered him still. And since everyone in their group was currently busy and not paying attention to them, Toudou thought it was a good time to not let the subject drop and he grabbed Makishima’s hand to prevent him from bolting away.

-              About what you said earlier.

-              Toudou…

-              Please, just listen to me? I do indeed have a rule, and it’s: no rules. No limits, no limitations, no impositions. There’s no such thing as ‘being lucky someone is in love with you’. I could concede that we have both been lucky to find each other, but it’s a phrasing I don’t like, honestly. What I mean is that I feel just as lucky as you do, but because you make my life better, and because I like myself more, when I’m in love and when I’m with you.

-              …is it even possible for you to love yourself more?

-              I’m being serious here Maki-chan, don’t change the topic. By the way, that was mean.

-              I understood. …I meant it that way too?

-              I don’t think so.

-              Why wouldn’t you?!

-              Because Ren-kun was joking about you being lucky to have me but your answer was no joke and you had an expression that clearly meant that something self-deprecating was going through your mind.

-              It’s not like th-

It was. Toudou knew and Makishima knew too, so it only took the former a pointed look to shut him up. The frown stayed there and Toudou felt an involuntary tug at his hand. Luckily, his grip was strong.

-              Stay here, Maki-chan. Please.

-              It’s a habit, okay?! My mind… it wanders.

-              Is it me? Do I make you feel insecure?

Makishima cringed.

-              …more like… anxious… maybe?

Toudou’s face fell. Makishima realized his mistake.

-              No. No no no no no, wait. Wait! Don’t get me wrong. You are doing nothing wrong, you hear me? Nothing. I mean it. And… that why… sometimes I feel anxious…

-              …because it feels like it’s too much happiness than you could  even hope for and you’re terrified that it might disappear from one day to the other, just as soon as you start taking it for granted and admitting to yourself you would never want to live without it? Ever again?

-              P-Pretty much. Yes.

Toudou brought his free hand up and trailed his fingers through Makishima’s hair, left them at his nape and leaned in for a kiss. With the celebration going on, nobody noticed. Not that he would have cared.

-              I feel like that all the time. Guess whose fault is it.

Makishima didn’t answer: he just blushed scarlet and went for another kiss.

-              Do you plan on going anywhere in the near future, Maki-chan?

Makishima cupped Toudou’s face and shook his own head.

-              Not at all.

Toudou took Makishima’s left hand gently and kissed his wrist.

-              How lucky. Neither do I.

They were still kissing in earnest when a paper fan hit Toudou square in the head and the snarling figure of a very unimpressed Arakita loomed over them.

-              Ohi, lovebirds. Quit the snogging for a while, will you?

Makishima had the decency to blush a little and chuckle awkwardly. Arakita winked at him while Toudou pouted and massaged his head.

-              I don’t accept lectures from someone that literally breathed his boyfriend’s air for the biggest part of six months!

-              We were seventeen and sharing dorms, idiot.

-              Well, not everyone had your luck. Some of us had to wait.

-              Yeah, and in the meantime we turned into fucking adults.

-              Do you happen to have a reason for interrupting us so rudely?

-              Scoot over and make some space: Shinkai’s cheating on me with grilles squids and Kinjou is about to jump on Fuku-chan. I’d rather not be in the middle.

-              But you’re fine being in between us?!

-              Look, Beetle Hair here lives two blocks away and I know you’re spending the night: let me finish this fucking Bepsi in peace, will you?

Makishima patted the patch of grass beside him and, when Arakita sat down (much to Toudou’s outrage) in the middle, Makishima handed him a blue straw, showing his own water bottle.

-              Want one? I have a spare.

Arakita grinned, accepted the straw and lifted his Bepsi to Makishima. Toudou was beyond indignation.

-              J-Just whose side are you on, Maki-chan?!

He was answered by matching raised eyebrows, but before either Makishima or Arakita could answer there was a frizzling sound above them and their faces got painted in vibrant colours.

The fireworks had started.

*

Makishima pinched Toudou’s arm and snapped him out of the memories.

-              Spacing out?

Toudou nuzzled his temple and kissed the mole beneath Makishima’s eye.

-              Just rememberd the Tanabata festival. I love you.

He watched with mirth as pink crept up Makishima’s neck and face and snuggled closer. Predictably, Makishima tensed at first, ever so slightly, then mellowed down and almost melted into Toudou’s arms with a sigh. Then, he turned and crawled up until they were at the same level, cupped Toudou’s face gently and brought their lips and bodies together.

-              Love you too.

The words were still a novelty and had Toudou known the effect that they would have had on Makishima, he would have told them sooner. Instead, he’d let Makishima say them first, which had caught both of them by surprise, reduced Toudou to a sobbing mess and sent Makishima into a mild panic attack. Hearing the story, Ren had proclaimed they were made for each other, for which the rest of the world was extremely grateful and relieved. Arakita had rolled his eyes dramatically and in a very judgemental way, but thankfully he’d refrained from saying anything in the end, which would have been extremely suspect, if Toudou hadn’t known about Arakita and Shinkai’s own First-Time-He-Said-The-Words Story of Doom. Shinkai, at least, had had the decency to smile wide at Toudou and not comment on the event itself, if not with a sincere and well-meaning ‘Aw, that’s so sweet, Jinpachi!’ that had lit up Toudou’s face and the whole room.

The memory made Toudou giggle and soon Makishima’s hands were framing his face again, and they were so close that all Toudou could see was a pair of blue eyes with the occasional strand of green.

-              What’s with you today? Focus on me, Jinpachi!

A thumb caressed Toudou’s bottom lip and Makishima had his undivided attention, so much that Toudou had to pull their bodies together again, as close as they could be, and he held Makishima into place by throwing an arm around his waist.

-              I definitely am. In fact, I was thinking about… us, in general. And the time I committed the awful mistake of introducing you to my best friends.

-              I have known Fukutomi for longer than I’ve known you.

-              Don’t play dumb: I’m speaking of Shinkai. And Arakita. Mostly Arakita.

-              I know. I’m merely messing with you.

-              See? That’s exactly what I mean when I say ‘awful mistake’.

Makishima smirked an evil grin Toudou was far too acquainted with. So, in the urge to wipe it of his face, Toudou resumed the make-out session in the blink of an eye.

*

-              No, that’s the exactly the point! You don’t understand!

They were at their usual place, sitting at their usual table and waiting for their usual orders to arrive. Shinkai had already started on his dessert because he was the waitress’ favourite: in between spoonfuls of fruit and cream, he followed the banter unveiling in front of him like a match of tennis. Toudou had pushed back his chair and was leaning on the table with both hands; Arakita brandished a spare spoon like a weapon and was waving it around in the direction of Toudou’s face.

-              Look, Toudou, I’m not saying I hate your guy’s guts on principle! I’ve listened to everything you told us about you two and this madness you crawled out of and I believe you when you say it’s all fucking sunshine and rainbows at the moment: I’m merely stating that I’m not jumping on the hype wagon straight away because I feel like we didn’t exactly started with the right foot, me and your precious cupcake, so I still have some reservations!

-              And this is why you’re wrong! I’m telling you to forget all about that first meeting! Forget about everything you have associated with him! I’m not even sure I want you to meet him, he’s too pure to breathe the same air as you – you shouldn’t even be allowed to look at him with your corrupted eyes, especially after all the obscenities you sprouted and believed about him!

-              Ohi! It was your fault I heard them in the first place, dumbass! And you are the one to talk!? You’ve been jerking off to all kind of sick fantasies with him as the sole protagonist for ages!

-              I’m in love with him now and I regret everything!

-              Well, I don’t.

-              What Yasutomo is saying – piped in Shinkai, spoon still in between his lips – is that he is still worried about your well-being, given how much you’ve hurt yourself lately. And Yuusuke being the reason behind your heartache, albeit involuntarily, puts a dent in Yasutomo’s ability to be objective about him and his relationship with you.

That said, he went back to his treat with a sense of finality. The spoon fell from Arakita’s fingers, Toudou looked back and forth between the two of them opening and closing his mouth in a very unflattering way.

*

-              Listen, Jinpachi, I know this is very important to you, but maybe today is just… not the right moment?

-              Nonsense. You two are only being stubborn! Oh, here they are!

-              Wait, wh-

Arakita and Shinkai were already waiting for them at their meeting point in front of the station. Toudou was walking quickly and tugging Makishima along by the wrist: he called out for Shinkai from the opposite side of the road and started talking as they crossed it.

-              Hi guys! Here we are!

He stopped in front of Arakita, keeping Makishima slightly behind himself, as if shielding him from Arakita’s bad vibes. Both Makishima and Arakita raised their brows at that and exchanged a perplexed glance. Shinkai smiled warmly.

-              Good morning, Jinpachi. It’s nice to see you!

-              Maki-chan, these are Shinkai and Arakita. Guys, he’s Maki-chan! Sorry we’re late: I couldn’t find the right headband to complete this outfit!

Shinkai kept on smiling and answered him kindly. Arakita couldn’t refrain from making the most frustrated, exaggerated face he was capable of. In front of him, Makishima was discretely doing the same: they caught each other in the middle of it and held gazes. Arakita’s was accusing, Makishima’s slightly defensive but ready to stand his ground. Arakita spoke first, and it sounded a bit like a threat.

-              …was it the striped one?

Makishima wore an aggravated expression, earnest in his guilt and frustration.

-              It’s always the striped one.

Arakita sighed, by-passed Toudou, threw an arm around Makishima’s shoulders and went ahead with him. Toudou stared in horror as the two of them exchanged words, glanced back with identical grins and chuckled ominously. Arakita noticed him and tightened his grip on Makishima, who let him.

-              What?! I like him!

Toudou stared at their backs and swallowed, torn between relief and an impending sensation of doom.

*

-              Speaking of Arakita…

-              …you haven’t just taken your tongue out of my mouth to pronounce Arakita’s name.

-              I did.

-              In my bed.

-              Yes, because I brought back from London the things he asked me and I still have them in my suitcase. I’m leaving them to you, I don’t know when I’ll be able to give them to him otherwise, and I don’t want to forget.

Toudou frowned.

-              What kind of things.

Makishima smirked and his eyes twinkled.

-              I’m not telling you. It’s a matter between seller and purchaser.

-              You’re leaving that stuff in my house.

Makishima cupped his face and smiled in that sweet way of his that looked absolutely terrifying.

-              Honey, trust me on this: you don’t want to know what I brought for your best friends. Yes, Arakita asked me, but Shinkai is definitely involved. I believe you don’t need me to expand on that tiny bit of information. Or the one concerning the package for your sister.

The horror on Toudou’s face was hilarious.

-              Not my sister too!

Makishima’s face darkened.

-              I’ll let you know that they were the one contacting me.

Toudou whined and hid his face in Makishima’s neck.

-              I kno~w. I’m not asking any more questions.

Makishima kissed the top of his head.

-              It’s for your own peace of mind, darling.

Toudou bit his collarbone through the hem of the sweater. They both breathed in each other’s smell and enjoyed the silence until Toudou lifted his head and put his chin on Makishima’s chest, even if they were still lying side by side.

-              Say, Maki-chan…

-              Yes?

-              …what about my present, then?

Makishima raised his eyebrows.

-              I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Toudou pouted.

-              Maki-chan!

-              You know what? I don’t think you’ve really deserved it…

Toudou pushed himself up, indignation written all over his face.

-              What!? Me!? Why!?

Makishima sat up too, crossed his arms and turned away with a deliberately emphatic toss of his hair. It was the haughty attitude Toudou had started to associate with Makishima’s stage persona and that they played with from time to time. Makishima looked at him from above his shoulder, green mane all over the place, and Toudou’s mouth went dry, like the first time he had witnessed such a scene.

-              I’m wearing part of it right now and you didn’t even notice! And you crawled under my clothes not even twenty minutes ag-ooph!

Makishima fell backwards and found himself sandwiched between the soft mattress and the warm weight of Toudou’s body, an undeniably positive change of position. The better part was that there wasn’t a single moment passing without contact, being it in the form of lips touching lips or hands roaming over skin. He chuckled smugly in the crook of Toudou’s neck when the latter’s fingers brushed against the lacy hem of a brand new pair of silky, black panties –that were not on the market yet- and Toudou let out a shuddering groan.

-              How could I miss these?

-              You were too busy being cute, as far as I remember.

-              What’s the price of your forgiveness?

Makishima pretended to think about it.

-              Mmmh… I don’t know… I’m not a greedy person…

-              Liar. When it comes to cuddles you’re the greediest bitch on this side of the river.

The appellative granted Toudou a playful bite that was more a provocation than an actual punishment and, in fact, riled him up even more. Makishima welcomed Toudou’s choice of taking charge with a satisfied hum and let himself be undressed eagerly. Toudou took his sweet time appreciating the now unobstructed view, unaware of the fact that Makishima was having the same reaction at the sight of Toudou’s serious face and loose, slightly unkempt hair. In fact, he gave in to the temptation of cupping that lovely, and beloved, visage one more time, taking in its flawless details and panting slightly.

-              Really, though: where did I find you?

Toudou kissed his left palm and trailed his lips over the skin of Makishima’s arm and shoulder, up to his neck and jaw to finish at the moles on his face.

-              Technically speaking, the answer would be ‘squatting behind your promotional cardboard banner, hiding in between lube and thermoplastic elastomer’, but it kind of kills the mood.

-              It wasn’t your best moment, no.

Makishima dragged Toudou down for another hungry kiss, body growing bolder in the heat and friction their movements created.

-              But I’m glad I found you.

Toudou hoisted himself up enough to be able to take in Makishima’s full face and trailed a hand languidly down Makishima’s body from neck to knee, basking in the view of Makishima’s eyes fluttering in pleasure and revelling in the goosebumps his touch elicited. He had the most responsive, most adventurous, most eager lover, and Toudou adored every inch of him. It was hard not to, when things like intimacy and sex flowed so easily between them, when it only took Makishima a quirk of an eyebrow and a dismissive comment to put Toudou’s doubts at rest. When he felt like gaining so much, giving so little in comparison.

*

-              How do you feel?

They were lying in the same bed their future counterparts would have had playful tickle-fights on., Toudou’s bed; it was the morning after Toudou’s birthday and they’d just had sex for the first time. Makishima’s very first time. Toudou had felt thrice the amount of tension, a tension that paradoxically had melted away during the act itself, dissipated by tenderness and excitement and sheer ecstasy – but had obviously made itself known again as soon as Toudou had recovered from his orgasm and noticed that Makishima, unmoving beside him, was giving him his back and not making a sound. Toudou’s blood ran cold.

-              Maki-chan! How do you feel!? Are you alright!? Did I-

A bony hand flew so close to his head that it barely missed smacking him right on the nose, and retrieved a decorative pillow that was lying around without purpose. Makishima pulled it over his uncovered ear and pressed hard.

-              Geez, Jinpachi! Don’t you, like, ever shut up?!

Toudou felt too outraged for words and let it show, but Makishima missed his theatrical gaping session nodding off in his pillow fortress. Toudou disentangled himself from the sheets and raised on his knees, completely uncaring of his state of undress, pointing at Makishima’s still form, bundled in the covers. When even that rustle wasn’t enough to elicit a reaction, Toudou grabbed the first of Makishima’s pillows he could put his hands on and snatched it away, rejoicing in the indignant squawk Makishima let out, and held his prize out of reach with both hands.

-              Really? Really!? I give you the most romantic, most dream-like, most uncriticizable performance of my life and you have the guts to fall asleep on me!?! To nag me about me being an attentive, caring, should-marry-on-the-spot boyfriend?!? Really!?! Yuusuke!!!

Makishima groaned and moved his hands around vaguely, as if he couldn’t decide whether he’d better shield his eyes from the light or his ears from Toudou’s voice. In the end, he let them fall on the mattress with finality.

-              Look, I appreciate it a lot, but we’ve been playing with my ass for quite some time at this point, what’s the matter?

The level of indignation Toudou was feeling blotched his face in a shade of purple that Makishima was sure he’d never seen in his whole life.

-              ‘What’s t-‘? – ‘What is t-‘?! – OH MY GOD ARE YOU EVEN REAL!?!

-              This isn’t normal, post-coital behaviour Jinpachi, not even for you. You’re a lot more blissful usually. And silent. I like silent.

-              We just made love for the first time and you’d rather sleep and give me the cold shoulder than, like, talk to me!? Connect with me?!

-              Your dick was literally inside me less than ten minutes ago and you’re talking about lacking connection?!

-              I’m talking about human decency – Makishima raised a brow at his naked glory and obliviousness – and intimacy, Maki-chan! The kind of warmth that doesn’t make either of us feel like a bed-warmer and nothing more!

Makishima was ready to retort but was stopped by the slightly hysterical note at the end of Toudou’s speech – and although, in light of what they had said and done and shared in the previous weeks, he had a sensible comeback for every point Toudou had made, he had also learned to give that note importance, because it mattered. So much that he could make the difference between an over-dramatic Toudou that was Makishima’s duty to make fun of, and a seriously hurt Toudou. Makishima had long come to terms with the fact that he would have rather gauged his own eyes out rather than willingly cause Toudou real harm. So, before things could spiral out of control and go from ‘utter perfection’ to ‘literal Hell’, he grabbed the first piece of fabric he found at his side (pretty sure it was his own pair of jeans, from the feel of it) and threw it around Toudou’s neck, pulling him down and rolling on the mattress until they were flush against each other and irremediably tangled in the sheets. Toudou was hovering above him in a mixture of confusion and irritation.

-              You want romance and pillow talk? Fine. Now hear this kind of pillow talk, Jinpachi, and hear me well: I’m in love with you, you fucking idiot. You, and your stupid face, your dumb antics and your impossible hair. You are my haven. And I trust you, you insufferable dimwit. You know I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, and the moment you earned yourself free access to my body, it meant exactly that: free access to my body, being it for a snog or an ass-fuck – it’s more or less the same, for me, conceptually. I trust you. I decided I trusted you enough the moment we started experimenting, so no, I’m not making a very big deal out of this because apart from the unbelievable sexual experience –get that cocky smirk off your face this instant, moron – I haven’t had some ground-breaking epiphany about how deep my feelings for you run, because I already knew, and I’ll have you know, too, that the answer is ‘real fucking deep’, or I wouldn’t have let you anywhere near my naked body in the last bunch of weeks. And if just now I didn’t play the emotionally overwhelmed deflowered maiden it’s partly because I’m dead-fucking-tired and that orgasm fused my brain and, mostly, because I literally short-circuited thanks to all the rampaging feelings that hit me – and I was trying not only to catch my breath, but also to clear my mind enough to express something coherent, because at this very moment I’m still torn between recovering the full range of my brain functions or jumping your bones to go at it again, from the start.

Toudou’s voice was hoarse when he spoke, and his eyes shinier than before.

-              Sweet words and shameless cuddling included?

-              Hell yes.

Toudou bit his nose. It escalated quickly, and understandably, in a full make-out-make-up session.

-              But I get to hold you until we fully recover and are ready to go.

-              …I can live with that.

They settled down with an amount of kissing that was just slightly above the average standard for newlyweds. Only when they were placidly spooned against each other and on the verge of dozing off, Toudou’s face buried in Makishima’s neck, Makishima holding onto Toudou’s hands tightly, did Toudou speak up.

-              Still, I don’t think I have fully forgiven you, Maki-chan. Really, your attitude towards every expression of socially accepted behaviour is absolutely t-

-              Oh my god Jinpachi don’t you ever shut the fuck up!

But this time, they laughed.

*

Months later, they were lying in the same position, sporting the same blissful expressions in the afterglow of a very similar set of mind-blowing orgasms. The black panties were within Makishima’s reach, and as Toudou stroked his stomach he brushed his fingertips on the thin black lace at the extremities.

-              I like that cut a lot.

-              Makishima chuckled, eyes closed.

-              Kuha! I noticed!

Toudou kissed his cheek and rubbed his chest.

-              Is this, like, a marketing survey of some sort? Are you using me as a guinea pig to gather feedback on the erotic appeal of your new models?

-              No, you’d be an abysmal test subject. Totally biased.

-              Mean!

Makishima caressed his arms.

-              Still, no. This pair belongs to no collection, actually. I put it together with some scraps I had around.

-              You made it yourself?! As in, you sewed it?!

-              I drew the model, cut the fabric, sewed it together and added the frilly decorations, because you love bows and crystal and I enjoy spoiling you. I skipped the ‘taking measures’ part because I’ve been making clothes for myself for my whole life, I know them by heart by now.

-              Amazing.

-              Really? I mean, it’s pretty much the first thing they teach you when you’re a fashion student, to work a sewing machine. You have to at least get a grasp of what it means to make a dress from scrap, in order to be able to design practical, wearable, feasible clothes. You have to get your hands dirty. Besides, fashion students are a bunch of weirdos anyway: by the time we got to school we were already used to sew things for ourselves, because we couldn’t find what we wanted in the shops. Or the internet.

-              How can you not find anything, even on the net? No, wait, I’ve seen your closet. Point taken.

Makishima kicked him with affection. Toudou bit his ear playfully.

-              Still, to be able to create something out of thin air –

-              More like more or less expensive fabric and thread, plus accessorizes.

-              Whatever. I still think it’s a terrific skill. And a gift. You’re a gift.

Makishima said nothing, just rolled back enough to kiss Toudou’s chin, then resumed his position of pampered little spoon as Toudou went on.

-              …and you made this for fun, thinking about me?

-              I made them to blow off some steam and relax, thinking about myself, since I’m the one who’s going to wear them.

-              You’re the worst cock-blocker on earth, Maki-chan.

-              I do it on purpose.

-              What.

-              Frustrating you is addicting. I’m intoxicated. It’s my drug.

-              So mean.

Makishima wasn’t listening to him, though. He was focused on the knickers, feeling the fabric and frowning.

-              Too light. In our official products we only used it in decorative inserts or coupled with a stronger fabric that’s meant to take the blunt of everyday use. I had none available, though, so this thing will be pretty short-lived.

Toudou pouted.

-              Pity. I would have liked to play with it a bit more.

-              Don’t worry, I made a whole drawer.

-              Eh?!

-              I had a lot of spare cutlets in amazing colours and fashion shows are very stressful, alright? Too much steam to blow off.

-              And no boyfriend to help you.

-              That too.

-              So, where are these exclusive marvels?

-              Shipped directly at my place. I’m not stupid enough to spoil half a year’s worth of erotic surprises in one night.

-              I’m torn between being offended at your calculating, dismissive attitude and dying of sweetness at the thought of you taking us for granted even six months from now.

Makishima tensed. Barely, but he did. It was hard to miss when they were pressed so tightly against each other with no clothes on.

-              Planning on being somewhere else?

Toudou snuggled closer.

-              No way in hell, Maki-chan.

Makishima relaxed and sighed in his pillow.

-              Good.

*

In retrospect, it had probably been Toudou’s fault for leaving the door of the closet ajar. That way, when he told Makishima to make himself at home and hang some of his clothes to avoid wrinkles, that corner was the first to caught Makishima’s attention.

They had biked all morning, eaten something on the way back and stopped at Toudou’s flat to shower and enjoy the rest of the weekend in peace. It explained Makishima’s bag and Toudou’s over-the-top hospitality. Which was a bit mingles with anxiety, since they had barely started approaching the subject of intimacy and he knew things were bound to happen in the upcoming hours. Especially if Makishima kept on being as interested in the matter as he had demonstrated lately and parading around in skimpy clothes. Okay, maybe shorts and t-shirt after a shower and on the verge of summer didn’t exactly count as skimpy, but they had the same effect on Toudou. The fact that their colour scheme and combination would have killed harder boners told a lot about Toudou’s hormonal situation. Thus he took a great pleasure in throwing himself on his own bed, muscles aching from cycling and mind emptied by the steamy hot water, and in watching Makishima unpack lazily, with no rush. Thoroughly relaxed, although expectant, and confident in his own attractiveness, Toudou reclined on the pillows and stretched himself, lounging in what he hoped was a seductive pose and mentally wishing Makishima would turn around and see him – but Makishima was checking the state of a shirt he’d just taken out of the bag and didn’t consider him at all. Toudou didn’t mind: they had all the time in the world and he could wait – this feeling of comfortable companionship was soothing and the mere action of watching his beloved do mundane things such as folding his clothes and hanging them in Toudou’s closet held meaning. It almost lulled Toudou to sleep, contentment and fulfilment painted on his face. Almost. Because at that point Makishima approached the closet through its already open door, taking it as a hint. By the time Toudou realized the mistake, it was too late: said mistake (and his past) spoke through Makishima’s voice.

-              Say, Jinpachi…

-              Y-Yes?

-              …why there’s so much of my stuff at the bottom of your closet?

Toudou very cleverly decided to play the oblivious.

-              W-What do you mean when you say ‘your stuff’, Maki-chan?

Makishima turned around, brow raised and arms crossed. Toudou swallowed.

-              Ugh. Fine. I wanted to forget, alright? After all that happened, I just threw those things in the darkest corner of my closet with the intention of never taking them out again.

Makishima looked over his shoulder, the hint of laughter in his next question.

-              …even the eggs?

-              Especially the eggs. Honestly, Maki-chan, you have no idea how treacherous those slimy little things actually are, you’d be appal-gwah!

The squawk was the very definition of unmanly, but it was hard to worry about dignity and reputation when he found himself pinned to the mattress with a lapful of his boyfriend. His bright-eyed, visibly excited boyfriend who was currently sporting the eeriest smirk Toudou had had the misfortune of receiving. In Makishima’s language, it meant he was having the most wicked kind of fun. It gave Toudou chills in the best way possible and he had no intention of interfering. Not even when one of the devilish things rolled over his belly and stomach to rest on his chest. Makishima’s grin was crooked and predatory-likem, and it thrilled Toudou for all the wrong reasons.

-              Treacherous? This cute lil’ friend of mine here? Really, Jinpachi?

-              A close relative of your friend here almost tried to blind me.

Makishima sat on his heels, perplexed, and inclined his head to the side.

-              …how?

-              I tried to use it, it got out of hand, literally, and it hit me in the eye.

-              You mean, like a rubber band?

-              Precisely.

-              Jinpachi, I’m trying to set a certain kind of mood here.

-              You asked.

-              Shhh. Relax.

There was the tickling sensation of Makishima’s hair falling over his face, neck and upper arms, the warm weight of Makishima’s body over his own, the smell of soap and the pressure of the egg trapped between them. It was a distracting presence, but Makishima’s kisses won over it quickly and soon Toudou felt as if he was melting on his own bed. He came back to his sense when he felt Makishima’s mouth leave his face and travel down his body, heading very explicitly towards his groin, and Toudou shuddered and moaned when hot, moist breath hit it through the sweatpants. When dry hands made their way delicately underneath his clothes and moved them aside to put him on display; when Makishima kissed his cock into a turgid state and unexpectedly took it into his mouth; when he sucked on it thoroughly but slowly, almost lazily, as if savouring the act itself, pleasuring himself in the process just as much as Toudou. They both knew climax would not have come quickly that way, but Makishima looked determined to spend some time experimenting (and experiencing) the collateral possibilities of oral sex and Toudou laid back and took the attempt for the gift it was. He didn’t feel like being extremely vocal about it, but he made a point of holding Makshima’s hands when they rested on his abdomen, or caressing Makishima’s head and face when it was within reach. He got so used to the irregular pattern of suction and tongue and so sure of their continuity that he didn’t really realized they had stopped until he opened his eyes and found Makishima looking at him from between his legs, cock in hand and glistening lips still too maddeningly close to it. Toudou lifted up a bit, breathing heavily and eyes questioning, then Makishima grinned back ominously.

-              You know, I’m almost offended.

Toudou knew he had been played and there was trouble coming at him and whined in, mostly sexual, frustration. Makishima nipped at his inner thigh and kept his palms flat on either side of Toudou’s navel.

-              Look at the little guy on your breast. How could you leave him behind?

Toudou knew he had no choice but to play along.

-              You did too, silly. Anyway, I told you why.

Makishima rolled his eyes and huffed impatiently at last.

-              Yes, but would you please just look at this one, specifically?

Toudou did. Oh.

-              It’s… very colourful.

Makishima grinned.

-              He is one of the special eggs: an exclusive pattern in every pack of six. That was the deal.

-              It looks… eccentric.

-              So it’s supposed to feel, as well. An experience in itself. A wild detour from the safe paths.

-              Sounds a bit like you, Maki-chan.

Makishima crawled up and sat on Toudou’s lap, making a point of grinding their hips together just a little, then he lowered himself on Toudou’s stomach, nuzzling his shirt up and kissing he skin underneath it.

-              That’s because I designed this specific pattern. It literally has my name on its shell.

Toudou tried to read the words but Makishima snatched the egg away before he could.

-              Maki-chan!

-              No cheating.

-              I can’t believe people are coming inside a rubber case named Makishima Yuusuke!

-              It was a figure of speech, Jinpachi!

-              Let me see!

Toudou sat up, but Makishima leaned back and put the egg above his head, where Toudou couldn’t reach. He knew he’d been fooled again when a bony arm locked him into an embrace and most of his movements were cut off. Makishima’s lips pressed on his throat made it more bearable. At least until he spoke.

-              Trust me, I’m going to do much more than that…

The crooked grin was back into place, there was a loud ‘pop’ somewhere and Toudou’s blood ran hot and cold at the same time.

*

Afterwards, he laid sprawled out on the bed, facing the ceiling with unblinking, wide-open eyes, in desperate need of another shower and incapable of moving. His only connection to reality had the shape of Makishima’s cool fingers caressing his face, hair and skin with feather-like touches that were mercifully lacking any kind of sexual connotation. In the aftermath of an orgasm that had left Toudou speechless and almost knocked him out for good, even Makishima’s voice sounded soothing like a balm.

-              …so, are you still convinced they’re treacherous little things, not to be trusted?

Toudou’s throat felt dry, but it didn’t matter.

-              Definitely. But, like, for the opposite reasons.

Makishima chuckled and retrieved a full water bottle from his sports bag on the floor. Toudou accepted it gladly and drank almost half of it while propping up on the pillows.

-              I need to give you credit, though, Maki-chan: that was…amazing. You were…terrific?

Makishima turned his head away, cheeks pink.

-              Shut up. Don’t be silly.

-              Can’t you just take a compliment for once?

Makishima pecked his lips to make him shut up. It was a technique Toudou was getting used to.

-              You’re embarrassing.

-              You’re still holding back. Please, don’t.

Makishima sighed and laid down beside him, let Toudou hug him and allowed himself to relax as well.

-              Thank you, then. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Toudou drew him in for a kiss.

-              I enjoyed it very much, believe me.

They sighed and closed their eyes. After a few seconds Makishima felt Toudou’s fingers poke his sides with insistence.

-              Is there even a way to make you stay still for more than five minutes, Jinpachi? I’m running out of options here.

-              Mean! You haven’t answered my question, by the way.

-              What question?

-              What’s the name of the pattern we just tried?

Makishima raised a brow and sat upright, the he lowered himself on Toudou so that his hair fell over the two of them like a thick green curtain. The only thing Toudou could make out like this was, again, his feral grin. The moment Makishima said the words, Toudou felt them resonating in every fibre of his muscles:

-              Spider’s Web.

*

Toudou walked in the kitchen to find Makishima perched on the counter, legs crossed uncomfortably in the cramped space that he’d claimed as his own, no matter how many times Toudou asked him to use proper furniture for sitting. He was holding two steaming mugs, eyes glued to the tv, and passed the blue one to Toudou when he heard him approach, while sipping tentatively from the green one and cursing under his breath when the scalding black tea burned his tongue.

-              That’s karma for you, Maki-chan. Come down from the counter.

-              You’re supposed to be the nurturing one, Jinpachi.

-                              Drink a glass of fresh water and hold some in your mouth, then. But still, come down from the counter: it’s not proper and I’d like to microwave my breakfast.

-              You can do it just fine even with me up here.

-              Why do my chairs put you off so much, Maki-chan?

-              It’s not your chairs that are sub-standard, it’s the counter that’s wonderful.

Toudou ignored him and went back to his business. It was a pity that he’d missed the breakfast Makishima had made for him the first time, and had now to re-heat it; still it was also kind of expected that food would have not been their first priority. Since Makishima was not doing anything to behave like a normal person, Toudou waited for his food to warm up and settled for eating it while standing. He leaned against the fridge, close to Makishima’s right knee, and munched rice and omelette from his plate, throwing the occasional glance at the program airing on tv.

-              What’s so interesting about this talk-show?

-              They have a fashion section after the music one and I’m pretty sure they’re going to talk about us: their journalist interviewed Ren at the Christmas party last week and they already sent invitations for us to join them for a live-chat.

Toudou almost choked on his rice.

-              You’re going on tv!?

Makishima feigned indifference.

-              Ren most likely is. Not so sure about myself. I’m already exposed enough with all the ads floating around.

-              You’re the head of Ren’s*Flower, though.

-              Technically, it’s a mutual thing – and I’m more the Head Designer anyway. I’m just… bad at the whole PR thing, you know? I can do my job, I can coordinate people, up to appoint, and deal with the whole ‘running a business’-thing. I can have fun in the promotional campaign and show off the soul and spirit of the brand, too. But I can’t go on tv and chit-chat about my work the way Ren does.

-              You talk to me about your job all the time, though. You’re good. I like listening to you.

-              That’s because we’re together. Those people out there are ready to throw me under the bus, instead.

-              You could charm them like you charmed me.

-              Apart from the fact that I’m still trying to understand how that happened, me and Ren have to come up with a sound strategy here. No matter how much I like it or I’m good at it, having me on the catalogues and ads is risky: it looks like it worked well for now and it’s what we want as far as communicating the philosophy behind Ren’s*Flower goes, but that’s precisely why we think it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to go and release interviews regarding my role in the business and its administration. I mean, they can’t link the concept of an entrepreneur to my butt cheeks as they saw them on the ads in the subway. So if they ask for the Head of Ren’s*Flower, it has to be Ren. I’m fine being the eccentric, sociopathic designer and the Model With No Name.

Toudou squeezed his knee.

-              You’re doing just fine.

Makishima smiled and put the empty mug in the sink.

-              So do you. Deputy-Chief Physiotherapist, did I hear right?

Toudou beamed.

-              Yes! Tanaka-san was hired at a new sports centre near her house, which is much more convenient for her, with the kids and everything. So we got another physiotherapist in her place and I got the Deputy Chief position! Ueda-san puts so much faith in me, I’m going to do my best!

Makishima put his legs down just to guide Toudou in between them and hug him loosely.

-              That’s amazing, Jinpachi! You deserved it, I’m so proud.

-              And I’m also getting a certification on massage therapy.

-              That might come in handy…

Toudou pouted.

-              What nasty things are you thinking about?

Makishima grinned.

-              All the times I’ve fallen off my bike and might have needed help.

Toudou thought about it for a second, then nodded in approval, apparently convinced.

-              …and all the things we could try with a licensed physiotherapist and massage-therapist at the ready for every inconvenience.

-              Maki-chan!!!

*

The thing with Makishima was, and Toudou couldn’t come to terms with it, that Makishima was simultaneously the most and least innocent creature to ever have waltzed in Toudou’s life. Arakita included. Which said a lot about Toudou’s current concerns. He had been graced with a boyfriend that was capable of blushing because of a heartfelt compliment on his appearance and entertaining an exhaustive discussion about the best way to wear a cock-ring at the same time. It felt like both a blessing and a curse and Toudou could not, for the life of him, pick a side. It was delightful and so on his wavelength to play the knight in shining armour and be the anchor to Makishima’s insecure requests; it definitely wasn’t to put barriers and deny him some of those requests because ‘Maki-chan, I’m not comfortable doing that to you, I’m pretty sure it’s also illegal in several countries including ours, where did you even learn of that, is it even physically sustainable!?’. Makishima always narrowed his eyes at him when he got worked up like that, and showed the most adorable pout, but never pushed the boundaries, because if there was one thing he had plenty of respect for, it was people’s comfort-zone. He never judged, either, and Toudou marvelled at how little he himself had started to care about what people might have liked to try and experiment in the bedroom. If his curious, enthusiastic boyfriend came to him with a new, unheard of, weird idea in mind, Toudou didn’t think much of it anymore, he just focused on whether he was up for it or not, no repercussions, no hard feelings. And it was… so easier, to approach life that way. It also needed a strong, mutual bond of trust between the parties involved, and it was that achievement that filled him with pride, most of all. Makishima didn’t trust virtually anybody, but he trusted Toudou enough to go to him and tell him he was intrigued by breath-play. And Toudou trusted him enough to admit his own limits, sometimes to confess his own fantasies, knowing that whatever agreement or disagreement they reached on a topic, there would have been no consequences. And to have been able to build that in a bunch of (intense) months felt overwhelming and miraculous, in a way. It also allowed Toudou to be a lot more relaxed about trying out new things: nothing happened when they took the bondage kit out of the closet and tinkered with it until it was crystal clear that Toudou was not meant for blindfolds but could definitely enjoy having his arms tied to the bed – while Makishima could not stand any kind of physical restraint (at all) but, as long as there was contact, had a much more positive response to the lack of eyesight. The only thing that had lingered after those nights was a deeper knowledge of their bodies, sexual desires and reactions to certain stimuli. Nobody had frowned at Toudou for shrieking in panic as when the darkness enveloped him and became too much, all of a sudden – just as he had answered readily and calmly to Makishima’s freaked-out cries of help to be untied on the spot because it didn’t work. There had been talking, and hugs, and a considerable amount of cuddles. Laughter, too. So much that Toudou felt now comfortable enough to take out the cuffs sometimes and ask Makishima if he was up for a ride. And his past self, the one that would have fainted at the mention of anal beads, seemed so distant all of a sudden. He still had reservations on paddles and no immediate need to try those out, but he couldn’t rule out the possibility completely, and that was a very big step. A step he had not taken alone.

-              Jinpachi?

-              Mh?

-              …what is it that you like about being cuffed to the bed post?

Toudou caressed Makishima’s back and ignored the way his hair tickled everywhere.

-              …the view.

Makishima lifted his head to look at him. Toudou traced his lips with a thumb.

-              I like looking at you. When I can’t touch you, guide you, support you it’s just… you and what you want more at the moment. You taking your pleasure the way you see fit. You’re free to do as you please and I love seeing you like that. I believe I also enjoy the frustration, just a little bit. Mostly, it’s the spectacle you put up when you have free reign over something. I’m also okay with giving you that power over me.

-              I wonder if that’s why I can’t stand it. I… I don’t like people having power over me. Are you mad?

-              What? No! Why should I be?

-              Because now that I say it out loud it almost sounds as if I don’t trust you enough. As if I still somehow think you could hurt me or take advantage of me when we play like that.

-              It never crossed my mind. Is it true, though?

Makishima cupped his neck and jaw.

-              No. I trust you completely. I just…

-              You don’t like being unable to move. You want to feel free of any kind of restraint when you make love. I see no problem with it.

Makishima kissed him.

-              But I’d like to understand why being blindfolded is such a turn-on for you, with these premises.

Makishima thought about it.

-              Because I trust you. And I know I’ll regret this as soon as it leaves my lips, but I also love your voice. And I love it when you touch me. And when I can’t see you it all feels so enhanced, and I can touch you back and it makes my fingertips tingle in anticipation. But I’m able to focus on that just because I know you’d never cause me harm and that all I’m going to receive from you in those moments is pleasure.

-              Which is exactly my point if we’re discussing restraints.

-              But you’re afraid of the blindfold.

-              It’s a bit spooky to me, yes. Mostly, I just want to be able to see you. Having my eyes covered detracts from the experience, at least for me, and it doesn’t add anything good.

Makishima pecked him on the lips and they stayed silent for a while, simply enjoying their proximity and body heat.

-              Jinpachi.

-              Yes?

-              There’s this shibari figure I stumbled upon a couple of days ago an-

-              Not now, Maki-chan.

-              ...at some point, though?

Toudou sighed and scratched Makishima’s head.

-              At some point. Maybe.

*

Makishima blinked twice and lifted his head groggily, trying to make sense of his surroundings. He had dozed off on what felt like Toudou’s couch, wrapped in Toudou’s blue quilt, the one that, supposedly, his grandma had knitted for him when he moved out. It was a woollen wonder and Makishima loved it so much that Toudou had asked his grandma for a twin one, in how many colours she could find among her yarn scraps – although Makishima knew nothing of it yet. He felt fingers through his hair and lowered his head to what were unmistakeably Toudou’s thighs, yawning and stifling a groan.

-              ‘m s’rry.

Toudou chuckled, but his legs remained still as marble.

-              It’s okay, Maki-chan. Sleep, if you need it: you certainly didn’t get much rest lately. Not to mention tonight.

-              We lazed around all morning!

-              It’s not even ten yet, Maki-chan. It’s alright.

Makishima turned on his back so he could look at Toudou. He was the only human being who could still look good from that perspective.

-              I do have a present for you, though.

Toudou smiled and pushed Makishima’s bangs out of his face.

-              Me too. It’s under the tree.

Makishima grinned and rolled off the couch and onto the carpet, quilt and all.

*

-              I want Grandma Toudou on my team. No, really, Ren would die for someone like her in our ranks.

-              It’s just a pair of socks, Maki-chan.

-              It’s the best pair of socks I’ve ever worn!

They were knee-high and featured colours that Toudou didn’t even know they dyed yarn with, not to mention his grandmother owned. They had been also put together very skilfully by an almost blind matron that seemed to not really understand the concept of ton-sur-ton anymore. She had added a trial of teal coloured decorative bows at the back and Toudou had to admit that not only did they look cute (in their own monstrous way), but also that Makishima was right: Grandma Toudou’s sense of fashion when you left her free reign was dangerously close to Makishima’s. Toudou shuddered.

-              She wants to give you the quilt personally, though, so you’ll have to pay a visit and come meet her at some point, sorry. Her, and the whole lot, actually.

Makishima stilled, tense and vaguely afraid. Toudou looked apologetic.

-              Hana can’t keep her mouth shut. And what can I say? We’re close. I told them about you, they were curious, and with all the talking Hana does about your brand…it was inevitable that they would feel excited. They just want to meet you, Maki-chan. Gran knits things for you out of her own free will and on her own initiative, it means you’ve already been accepted as part of the pack.

Makishima was looking out of the window, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and fidgeting with his fingers.

-              …how about after New Year’s? I could probably use a weekend at the hot springs, at that point…

-              Sounds good! I’ll let them know!

-              …tell me if you’re calling them. I… I think I should thank your grandmother for everything.

Toudou nodded enthusiastically, then sprang up from the couch and took Makishima’s wrist to lead him back on the carpet in front of the short but opulent Christmas tree, from under which he retrieved a small, rectangular box in white and pale gold. Makishima looked at him with wide eyes, a little taken aback. Toudou grinned.

-              Come on! Did you really think I could make you go home with just a pair of socks that my grandma knitted?

Makishima touched his neck and looked elsewhere.

-              …it would have been enough.

Toudou made his way beneath his hair and giggled at the pink cheeks he found.

-              Give me some credit, Maki-chan. Open up and merry Christmas!

Makishima took the package with a murmured thanks and raised a brow at the name on the box. Toudou anticipated his complaint.

-              Not expensive. I told you: Christmas gifts are all about the thought, to me. Go on, I’m getting nervous: open up!

Makishima snorted and did as he was told. When the lid came off, he was presented with a very familiar golden chain and felt light-headed, inexplicably content and partially embarrassed. Which meant that he chuckled, blushed and face-palmed at the same time. Toudou seemed to enjoy the show immensely.

-              It’s not exactly the one you eyes at the mall last time, but they had a few, better options at the jewellery shop close-by, and this one suited you more, in my opinion.

Makishima held the necklace between his fingers and studied it closely: the shape, the pattern drawn on the tiny gold plates, the rigidity – he could very well picture it (and already feel it) around his neck. He smiled sincerely, despite himself.

-              It does. Thank you, Jinpachi, I really like it.

Toudou moved behind him to help him put the necklace on but stopped, amused, at the sight of Makishima shaking his head behind his palms. Soft snorts and laughter came from him.

-              Maki-chan, I’m glad you’re so happy about it, but I don’t really see what’s so… funny?

Makishima laughed out loud at that and stood up in one slightly disarticulated motion, heading for the bedroom with a weird spring in his steps. Before disappearing behind the door, he turned towards Toudou, who was watching the scene with incredulity and hilarity at the same time, and told him with and expectant, rich tone.

-              Gimme a second and you’ll see, I promise.

He came back after half a minute, holding a bag he had definitely been hiding in his luggage. Toudou didn’t recognize the name of the brand printed on it, but was enraptured by its posh appearance. His expectations only grew when Makishima took a smaller package out of it, one that looked a lot like the one Makishima had just unboxed, only black where the other had been white. Makishima threw it to Toudou, who caught it without effort and had opened it before his boyfriend could sit back in front of him. Toudou found himself staring at a classy golden chain of his own, one that screamed his name so loudly he could read it on every detail. He brought a hand to his face, much like Makishima had done, but to hide his watery eyes instead. Makishima saw them all the same and crawled beside Toudou, throwing his limbs around him and resting his chin on Toudou’s shoulder, so that their heads were touching.

-              It’s not exactly the one you eyed at the mall, but you know, it was a bit hard to find that specific one in London. And, in my opinion, this one suits you much more, if you know what I mean…

Toudou hugged him tightly, sobbing openly at that point. Makishima held him and kissed his temple, genuinely content and slightly ecstatic at Toudou’s obvious happiness.

-              I can’t believe we got each other the same present.

-              It usually happens, with simple-minded idiots.

Toudou grabbed his head and brought him forward until their foreheads touched.

-              It’s the most romantic thing that ever happened to me.

Makishima kissed his nose and upper lip.

-              You’re welcome.

Toudou was hit by another wave of emotion. Makishima noticed with a hint of satisfaction that, at least, his boyfriend was an ugly crier. Little consolation, given the amount of cuteness ingrained in Toudou’s every fibre, but still something Makishima could use to his advantage in the future: his making fun of Toudou was, after all, a building stone of their relationship. He couldn’t have imagined that the best part of their brief, post-Christmad reunion would have included sitting on Toudou’s carpet, holding onto each other for the sheer pleasure of it, having a quiet moment.

Makishima realized he was happy, and that such happiness stemmed from the firm, hot weight currently in his arms, and that despite how much he teased Toudou about sappiness, he didn’t want to let go. He truly did not want to let go. Of Toudou, of that moment, of what it represented. Of the anchor that was Jinpachi, of that warmth that he was only able to feel when Jinpachi (and him alone) was pressed against his body, of the sense of peace and quiet bliss that came from having Jinpachi close. He held on tight and rocked a bit back and forth, marvelling at how easy it was for him to be soft and attentive when it came to Jinpachi how good it felt to take care of him, to try and make him smile, to give him shelter when he needed it, to allow him to feel safe and be himself, to be the place where Jinpachi could charge his own batteries and feel protected. For so long Makishima had been looking for a niche like that to call his own, and now that he’d found it his greatest joy and pride came from playing the same role for his dearest person. He let himself relax in Toudou’s embrace and savoured the feeling that transpired. The one he’d learned to call love. He felt Toudou smile against his neck and unconsciously did the same, eyes wandering over the carpet, the opened boxes, the bag he’d brought from Lond-….shit.

…how could he tell Jinpachi that there were still three limited-edition, designer headbands waiting for him in the package?

*

Toudou’s happiness was a contagious thing. It partly went hand-in-hand with his attractiveness: beautiful people radiating genuine joy were a force of nature in Makishima’s opinion. The fact that his boyfriend manifested such feelings with the energy (and overall adorableness) of an overgrown pup made it very hard not to be overwhelmed by it and feel completely smitten. As he looked at Toudou having fun with his new headbands in front of a table mirror, Makishima came to the conclusion that for someone that claimed to not be overly fond of animals, Toudou surely resembled some in lots of different ways: he was pretty and eye-catching like a fancy, exotic bird; he was sleek and shiny like a black cat (silent and unobtrusive as one, too, when he put his mind to it); genuine and reliable as the sweetest, most faithful dog. He could also be as loud as and annoying as those tiny lapdogs that more often than not gave Makishima migraines. It felt strangely comforting and slightly funny: Makishima had always prided himself with having an innate affinity with animals. Being able to connect with them so naturally when he couldn’t for the life of him form relationships with other people had been reassuring, in the past. Life had been less lonely, with Josephine as a companion. Under this light, it kind of made sense that his stronger ties were with people that presented stereotypically animalistic characteristics. His best friends were a literal bear and a shady, sturdy snake whose fiancé, in his previous life, had certainly been a lion. His former pupil was the cutest, tiny rodent he’d ever met, although with a backbone made of steel. And now his boyfriend had entered the picture as the most spoiled, most domesticated pet of the lot. No wonders they’d got along well from the start.

-              What’s so funny, Maki-chan?

Makishima hugged a pillow and grinned from the couch.

-              You, but in the most positive way. It’s nice to watch you.

Weirdly enough, Toudou believed him. Perhaps he was still too focused on his gift. In fact, his only answer was a bright smile and a question.

-              So? What’s your favourite out of the three, Maki-chan?

-              The one I brought home with me.

It was like he had dropped a bomb in the middle of the leaving room. Toudou turned around so fast Makishima feared his neck would snap.

-              You got yourself a headband and didn’t tell me.

-              It was an unexpected gift of my own. The designer is a good friend of my brother, he knows our brand well. He really made it work for me, we plan to use it in our catalogues with some outfits of Ren’s Design.

-              You have pictures.

-              …was that supposed to be a question?

-              You just admitted that you like a headband and plan to wear it, and I failed to record it. I demand pictures as proof that this isn’t all my imagination.

-              No pictures.

-              So mean!

-              …yet.

Toudou beamed.

-              And I like the sand-coloured one with the tiny, curve lines. But I think you’d look better with the pop-themed one. And I couldn’t resist the holiday special, so I got you the whole set.

Suddenly, he had a lapful of affectionate Toudou rubbing their cheeks together.

-              Let’s wear them when we go visit the shrines on New Year’s!

-              It’s freezing. The only thing I’m wearing in my head on New Year’s is the thickest woollen hat I own.

-              You can still wear the headband underneath it.

-              …what’s the point if nobody is going to see it?

*

Leaves had started to fall and autumn colours gave the city a warm hue that contrasted sharply with the crisp, cool air. Things at Ren’s Design and Ren’s*Flower were becoming hectic with the big debut approaching, and lately Toudou’s only way to spend some time with his significant other was to hunt him down at the shop (or in the office above it) and force him into a much needed food-break. Ren approved and encouraged him, if anything because he took Toudou’s visits as excuses to leave the pups alone and get a break himself.

That time it was different, though, because not only it had ben Ren to call Toudou and tell him to come and take Yuusuke home before he overworked himself again, but he had also texted Toudou a different address – and had Toudou bothered to check it beforehand, he would have also read in his brother-in-law’s plan. And thanked him profusely in advance, maybe.

Because when he reached the studio (armed with the ultimate, Maki-chan-tailored emergency kit heìd put together especially for these occasions: an ensemble of sugar, vitamins, energizers and cooling pads, plus the occasional painkiller)what he’d found had been a team of familiar people running back and forth in a weirdly lit room, carrying items Toudou wasn’t able to identify, blinking knowingly at him when they spotted him and crowding around the centre of the room. It was probably the novelty of the environment that distracted Toudou, he didn’t even connect the dots when Ren welcomed him with a tired but genuine smile and clasped his shoulder twice. So, when people dispersed a bit and he was able to make out the shape of a photographer and of everything going on in front of him, it hit him like a truck at full speed. All of a sudden, he was looking at a very familiar figure under a very different light. Quite literally.

Makishima was glowing and it certainly had something to do with the amount of glitter, crystals and shiny cloth he was drowning in, but there was also the way he was carrying himself, the way his smile travelled up to his eyes and the obvious fun he was having. He only spotted Toudou when the photographer thanked everybody for the hard work and called it a day – and there was also the tiniest hint of uncertainty in Makishima’s expression before it broke into a smile and he rushed towards Toudou. At least as quickly as the long sheath dress and platform shoes allowed. And only when Toudou found himself with an armful of his enthusiastic boyfriend, sweet perfume hitting his nostrils and fancy skirt and flowers crackling under his grip, did he realize how much Makishima was towering over him. Toudou stepped back and took a moment to process the whole picture and elaborate a coherent thought. He failed, and considering Makishima’s fit of giggles, it showed.

-              Not even a single word? Really?

Makishima’s hands were dry and cool despite having been under the hot beams the whole afternoon, and if Toudou looked closely, Makishima’s lips were stretched into a smile that was just a bit too tight and wavered slightly as he spoke. The way he held onto Toudou’s hands, as if afraid to let go. The familiar, barely concealed stiffness in his posture and voice.

He’s afraid. He’s afraid you’re going to reject him. He needs you to reassure him. He needs to hear it from your mouth.”

-              You are…

Beautiful in a way I never knew someone could be. Flamboyant and over the top in that posh, haughty and utterly flawless way only haute-couture models on the catwalk can pull off. Glamorous as you can only be when appearing on the glossy cover of a magazine. Mesmerizing. Unique. Confident. Radiant. Impeccable, unblemished, faultless like a handcrafted doll. Unmarred, absolute and whole, with just the smallest hint of wicked sultriness.

-              …perfect. Which… sounds so lame, compared to everything going through my mind at the moment, but- I’m… I mean- I’m just-

Makishima was flashing him the most breath-taking smile, eyes uncharacteristically shiny.

-              …speechless?

Toudou let out a breath and gave a heartfelt chuckle, extending his arms in a blind but confident attempt to bring Makishima forward.

-              Yeah. Completely. You’re… you’re perfect. Just perfect.

Makishima went willingly, and beneath the layers there they were, his peculiar shape and gestures that made everything feel familiar and meant home.

-              Thank you. I’m so happy you came here, Jinpachi.

-              Me too, Maki-chan.

They were still hugging when the crew around them scattered around and dispersed to put the equipment away and tidy the room up in the most efficient way. Makishima stepped back to give them some attention and, still holding Toudou’s hand, intercepted a girl who was carrying shawls.

-              Makishima-kun! Thank you for your hard work! The shooting went really well!

Makishima bowed slightly, cheeks spotted pink, and scratched the mole beside his lip.

-              T-Thanks. Do you need me to hand you the dress right away?

She took a moment to look between them and eyed Toudou speculatively.

-              Just leave it in the dressing room with everything else: we’ll collect it later!

She hurried away, but made sure to wink at Toudou when passing beside him; he couldn’t help but laugh along in acknowledgement and right after that he felt Makishima pull him away and Toudou had to watch his steps to avoid stomping on the gown.

-              Where are we going, Maki-chan?

-              Changing room.

-              Oh.

The walk was brief, but Toudou had an unobstructed, frontal view of the low back cut of Makishima’s dress and the see-through organza that partially hid his lover’s back from view. As if reading his mind, Makishima looked over his shoulder.

-              The organza is removable, of course. We just thought it should stay on for this specific bunch of pictures. We’re definitely taking it off at some point, though.

Toudou’s eyes were glued to the sinuous lines of Makishima’s back and every now and then he thought he could see and feel Makishima shudder, as if ran through by an unexpected shiver. Toudou blamed it on the cold and uncomfortable high heels.

Less than two minutes later, they were savagely making out against the door of the dressing room, locked inside it. There was grinding, and adventurous hands, and a growing intoxication that felt like thirst, and Toudou had never harboured such deep and opposite feelings for a piece of fabric his whole life: it was too much, it was everywhere and it made it so hard to press himself against his lover in a satisfactory way. At the same time, it created expectations, friction and an infuriatingly addicting game of treasure hunting. Touching bare skin, caressing a stocking-clad thigh above the lace and beneath the garter belt, kissing the pulse point on Makishima’s neck – it all felt so very different when they were both engulfed in meters of richly decorated dress. It was driving Toudou crazy; it was driving both of them crazy, actually, if the sounds escaping Makishima’s mouth  and the way his back arched and his knees gave out were to be taken into account. Toudou surprised even himself when raw desire took the best of him and he pinned Makishima to the door, pressed their bodies together with a forceful thrust of his hips and basked in the wanton hiss that it tore out of Makishima’s throat.

-              You have no idea of how much I want you right now.

Makishima wriggled one of his hands free of Toudou’s grip and cupped him through his jeans; Toudou was sure he was losing touch with reality and made it clear. Somehow. Makishima chuckled smugly.

-              Oh, I think I do…

Toudou bit his lip and they kissed languidly for a while before Makishima could finish the sentence.

-              …in fact, if I don’t have you right now I’m not going to answer for my actions.

The boldness in Makishima’s words, coarse with need, and his body language surprised Toudou and turned him on immensely at the same time – because, come on!, who could even have resisted a real-life model begging to be fucked in their work-clothes?
Which was why in a matter of seconds Makishima found himself swept off his feet and thrown on the nearest flat surface – the make-up desk, if he remembered correctly. His whole body throbbed at the hard contact and he couldn’t suppress a loud moan that left Toudou puzzled. It wasn’t the time for doubts or second thoughts, though, so Makishima wrapped his legs around Toudou’s hips and grabbed his shirt, pulling him down with the firm intention of wiping any uncertainty away. For a sweet moment it worked, then there was a thud somewhere behind Makishima’s head, a bit on the left, and a considerable lack of response from the body above his own. His own aching, throbbing one.

-              …Jinpachi?

Toudou was not answering and Makishima got up fully, ignoring the shivers running through him that time. He followed Toudou’s line of sight and noticed he was holding something in his hand. Or better: that in their haste Toudou had knocked something off and his hand still hovered over it, because apparently that something was enough to get Toudou’s undivided attention even in a moment like that. Makishima felt rightfully jealous and personally offended, and he was ready to make it known, but Toudou beat him.

-              T-This is…

And Makishima knew they were done for the evening. He groaned and it was clearly not in pleasure.

-              Yeah, Jinpachi: it’s exactly the same model. The new design, though.

Toudou grabbed the offending item even if it looked like it pained him to do so, and waved it under Makishima’s nose.

-              Why is there a butt plug lying around like this?

Makishima could feel a headache coming.

-              Because it’s one of the products that are going on the advertisement and promotional campaign. It’s bound to be around if it’s going to be photographed.

-              But why is it around like this?!

Makishima took his face in his hands and then pointed at the opposite corner of the small room, where were stored many white cardboard boxes with the logo of Ren’s*Flower printed on the side.

-              We had some stuff delivered directly here, instead of moving it back and forth. This is the only room big and free enough to keep it out of the way.

-              Yes, but this isn’t sealed in its own case, this is-

-              That was taken out because Akira-san used it for the main shooting and then it wasn’t put away because we got curious and played with it while they were doing my hair and make up!

-              God, I hate these things.

-              Well, I don’t!

Toudou looked like Makishima had slapped him and took a couple of steps backwards. Makishima shifted on the desk until he was kneeling on it, which gave him quite an advantage over Toudou in terms of height.

-              I know you’ve got a bad experience with a butt plug not so long ago…

-              That shit got stuck so far up my ass I had to call Shinkai to get it out!

-              …and I agree we can call it a traumatic episode and I respect your reticence and dislike towards this category of toys…

-              I hate them.

-              …but really, you can’t let it influence your life this negatively.

-              I don’t!

-              We were totally in a mood a moment ago and if you hadn’t lost yourself in whatever flashback that was playing in your head we could have been in the middle of the best fuck of our life right now.

-              Shit.

-              Yeah, pretty much. Perhaps we should work on your attention span.

Toudou threw one last look at the boxes behind him, then went back to the desk, eyes downcast, mortified. Makishima’s frustration dissipated and he lowered himself enough to be at Toudou’s level and make space for him into his arms. A loose hug was not mind-blowing sex, but it sure was better than arguing.

-              I’m sorry Maki-chan. It really is a sore topic.

-              I’m aware. I’m just worried it could grow into something invalidating.

Toudou breathed into Makishima’s breast thrice before voicing his thoughts.

-              I can’t connect to the presumably pleasurable aspects of butt plugs anymore. The accident wiped out every kind of positive sensation I had got out of mine. I don’t see the appeal of it anymore.

Makishima caressed his hair the whole time.

-              Well, I guess it might be an interesting way to play together with your partner, for a change. I think you can confirm that it takes a lot of trust to allow someone so much freedom around your ass.

-              Definitely.

Makishima hummed in agreement and kissed his cheek. Toudou moved his hands up and down Makishima’s sides and it was a soothing contact.

-              I think it has a far wider potential as a solo toy, though. It gives you…an awareness of your own body and its sensitivity that is truly enlightening. Empowering, even, when you learn to use it to your advantage. You know… your little secret against the world…

Toudou lifted his chin to look Makishima in the eye, confused.

-              You’ve given it a lot of thought, Maki-chan.

Makishima grabbed said chin and brought their faces close, grinning. Toudou couldn’t take his eyes off him, not even when Makishima took one of his hands and guided it under his skirt and straight into his underwear.

-              I’ve been wearing one the whole time, Jinpachi. And it feels amazing.

Toudou checked. And whimpered.

*

-              Do you really want to go through that discussion again, Maki-chan? You?

Makishima threw a pillow at him.

-              You can’t compare a butt plug with a headband, for fuck’s sake!

-              You tell me fashion is a way of life before anything else and then you get stuck on the idea that a headband must be shown whenever you wear it? By your own logic the focal point of you wearing a headband is exactly that: that you wear it, period. The fact that other people might be aware of it is collateral and strictly necessary. You’re making a statement with yourself just by putting the headband on your head.

Makishima stared at him wide-eyed.

-              Oh my god.

-              …what’s wrong, Maki-chan?

-              …you just outsmarted me.

Toudou threw the pillow back at him and hit him in the face.

*

An hour later, Toudou was reading a mystery novel that Shinkai had gifted him for Christmas, lying on the couch with a warm, sleeping weight on his stomach and between his legs. He had placed the book on Makishima’s shoulder and was keeping it upright with his left hand while toying with his boyfriend’s hair with his right one. Makishima was going to be so annoyed once he woke up, but he had to accept that he suffered jet-lag more than the average person and that his body needed rest, especially considering  the amount of energy and effort he had put into his work in the last weeks (and that he was going to spend in the same way in the upcoming days). Toudou could understand Makishima’s issues with sleeping the few hours they had together away, but truth to be told he found it better than having Makishima force himself to stay awake only to pay the price of his stubbornness later, perhaps in the middle of a work day or, the horror, during a public meeting. He gave his lover an affectionate nuzzle and went back to his novel with a sigh: the golden necklace felt cool against his skin when he shifted and made him smile. Maybe it was the rose-tinted glasses he seemed to perpetually wear these days that spoke for him, but he was of the opinion that they had had a wonderful Christmas and that their first winter holidays as a couple had gone well, even if technically speaking they had not been together at all, and now that they were Makishima had lsot the battle against exhaustion. Still, lazing around in his flat with his unconsciously affectionate boyfriend gave Toudou a peace of mind and sense of security he had missed. It almost felt like an accomplishment, when in reality it wasn’t, although maybe it could be considered a milestone in lifespan of a relationship? All he knew was that the awareness made him sappier than intended and too indulgent with their laziness, but at the same time happy. Very, very happy. So happy that he had to put the book aside and slide down the sofa, shifting under Makishima, embracing him fully and pressing kisses to his hairline. Makishima stirred a little but didn’t wake up, and Toudou rested his cheek on the crown of Makishima’s head, smiling to himself like the besotted, light-hearted idiot that he admittedly was.

His phone buzzed on the low coffee table in front of the sofa and Toudou caught it easily, unlocking the screen above Makishima’s shoulders. It was a mail from Ren. Toudou adjusted the two of them to take a picture of Makishima’s sleeping form and attached it to his reply. Finally, from his chest came soft groans and a few, brief sighs, unmistakeable signs that he’d managed to do the impossible and bring Makishima back from Morpheus’s arms.

-              W’z th’ time? Wuzz g’in’ on?

He would have never admitted it, not even under torture, but physical contact of an intimate, affectionate kind was Makishima’s weakness and true addiction, and Toudou had made it his personal mission to spoil Makishima rotten in that sense – the perks of being a natural giver in a committed relationship with a touch-starved hedgehog. So, Toudou wrapped himself better around Makishima and buried his face in his hair, making him hum in comfort.

-              It’s barely lunch-time. Your brother asked why you weren’t answering his calls: he wanted to make sure you were alright and ready to make plans.

Makishima shot up at the mention of Ren.

-              What did you tell him?

Toudou cupped his neck and enjoyed the feeling of green waves against his knuckles.

-              I mailed him a picture of you sleeping on me like a log.

-              You did what?!

Toudou’s phone went off again, briefly, near Makishima’s wrist. Makishima grabbed it first and opened the new message with a mixture of fury and apprehension. Toudou tried to take it back, but was blocked by a dry palm on his forehead and why did Makishima have to have such long limbs?! By the time he was done reading the mail and ignoring Toudou’s protests, Makishima still looked astonished, although a little more pleasantly so, and he relaxed enough for Toudou to by-pass his block and hug him loosely around the waist. Makishima put a hand to Toudou’s head, while the latter buried his face in Makishima’s shirt and spoke to his chest.

-              What did he say?

-              I haven’t told you it’s Ren…

-              There is nobody else in my contact list that would make you make that face. Except Shinkai, when he sends me pictures of his pets. So it’s either your brother giving you good news or a video of Usakicchi playing fetch.

Makishima didn’t answer and just turned the phone around. There was no bunny on the screen, just Ren’s name above a white box with the words: “Would it be too much of an inconvenience if I left him at your place for a couple of days and picked him up early on the 31st? ;))))”.
Toudou smiled at the phone and then at Makishima, who was grinning back.

-              Did you write back?

-              It’s not my phone we’re talking about. Nor my place. I mean, can I even stay?

-              Maki-chan, are you kid-

Makishima pushed him back against the sofa and went down with him, laughing; he curled up on Toudou’s lap again and had the phone out so fast that Toudou didn’t understand what he was doing until Makishima told him to “Look up and be your pretty self, Jinpachi!” and the shutter clicked. Toudou watched with mirth as Makishima typed a quick reply under the attached picture. He waited until the mail was officially sent before retrieving the phone and opening the file. He smiled at the message (“It’s a bit cramped in here, but we’ll make it work! - Yuu”) and at the photo itself. It was a cute one, despite its candid nature.

-              I think this is the first couple-picture we’ve taken so far.

Makishima looked at their faces on the screen and took the phone in his hands.

-              We’ve taken plenty of pictures, though. It’s you we’re talking about.

-              Exactly. But you took this one, and as if it was the most natural thing in the world and not a big deal at all. As if you wanted to.

Makishima didn’t answer. He didn’t for such a long time that at some point Toudou had to actually check on him and found him staring transfixed and unblinking at their photograph. As red as the highlights in his hair, from the tip of his ears to the collar of his t-shirt. Toudou poked him on the shoulder, playfully, holding back a laugh that died in his throat when Makishima put the phone down and lifted his head to look Toudou in the eyes and whisper:

-              I did.

Toudou flung an arm around his shoulders and one under his legs, gathered him on his lap as much as he could and kissed him in earnest.

*

Fifteen minutes later they were making out savagely and Makishima shivered in pleasure as Toudou held his wrists above his head and pushed him further into the soft, enveloping cushions of the sofa. Makishima’s shirt rode up to his nipples, Toudou’s came off completely. Their bodies aligned with practiced ease and they groaned into each other’s mouths.

*

Forty minutes later Makishima was on his elbows and knees, shirt pooled around his shoulders, naked from the waist down and ass up in the air as Toudou held him firmly by his waist or hips and thrust into him with a vigorous rhythm that got them sweaty and breathless very fast. In the haste of getting Toudou inside him as quickly as possible, Makishima had moved the pillows out of their way with the result that some of them were lying abandoned and forgotten on the carpet, along with their missing clothes, while others were trapped beneath him, causing a blessed friction on the most sensitive parts of his body every time that Toudou pushed him forward and made him rub against them. Makishima didn’t know that overstimulation could be such a powerful tool until Toudou angled himself just right and slid in with a smooth, quick thrust Makishima wasn’t expecting: his cock met the silky side of an embroidered pillow, his nipples brushed against the rougher texture of a corduroy one and Toudou reached his sweet spots perfectly – the only way for Makishima to free himself from the overwhelming pleasure and not lose his mind was to cry out wantonly and ask for more. Toudou was used to his lover being vocal during sex, but he had never been so loud, and it threw Toudou off-balance a little. Still, he complied to Makishima’s request and rolled his hips in the exact same way. That time he was ready for the inarticulate moan that followed, which went straight to his loins and tipped him off in a completely new direction. When he pushed hard for the third time and Makishima pleaded for him to go on, he did, but stopped before the movement was complete: his right hand went straight to grab Makishima’s crotch, his left to Makishima’s half-open mouth, and this way Toudou forced them into a slight shift of position that allowed him to deepen the penetration and at the same time whisper into Makishima’s ear:

-              God, you’re so thirsty for this cock you’re literally begging for it.

Makishima whimpered and Toudou felt him twitch into his hand. He gave another slow, tentative thrust and pre-come leaked between his fingers as Makishima moaned and panted in earnest. Toudou felt in a trance-like state.

-              Fuck, you’re such a slut.

The movement was so sudden, and yet so fluid, that Toudou almost broke character for a moment, thinking he had screwed up big time – but the hiss they both let out at the unnatural separation of their bodies changed nature and meaning when Toudou was pushed into a sitting position by Makishima’s warm hands and Makishima made a show of rubbing their damp, sleek bodies together before lowering himself on Toudou’s throbbing member in one smooth motion. Toudou’s arms went around his waist and back, hands roaming over chest, neck and cheeks to make sure everything was fine: he found the fiery expression he had learned to know and love as they rode up steep mountain routes together, the same shiny, challenging eyes and arched eyebrow and lopsided smirk, and knew everything was alright. It was as a deliberate provocation that he grabbed a handful of Makishima’s ass and lifted him up enough to thrust upwards and let gravity be their ally. Makishima enjoyed it so much he held onto Toudou’s shoulders as he arched backwards and cried out in a hoarse voice. Toudou pulled him back up so that they were still facing each other and looked at Makishima’s dishevelled appearance: the sweat, the battered t-shirt, the unfocused eyes, the wild hair – the perfect depiction of the expression ‘well fucked’, and shamelessly so. More turned on that he remembered ever being, Toudou put on a deliberately arrogant expression as he gave another forceful, practiced thrust, watched his lover come apart a little more under his hands and took advantage of Makishima’s most vulnerable moment to emphasize the concept:

-              Such a filthy, insatiable whore.

Hot limbs wrapped around him and a spidery hand pulled his hair with such strength that Toudou’s head whipped backwards and exposed his neck. Makishima clenched hard around Toudou and, at his moan, he licked his way up to Toudou’s throat and chin only to look wickedly into his eyes and whisper onto his lips:

-              Yours.

It hit Toudou like a ton of bricks, and he used the frustration to push the two of them back onto the sofa so that he had Makishima spread out beneath him and he could penetrate him again and take the time to bury his face in the crook of Makishima’s neck in what was surely an uncomfortable position for both. Still, neither moved. That time, Toudou broke character for real and choked a sob into his lover’s shoulder.

-              Damn you! Damn you, Maki-chan!

Makishima’s hands were trembling against his face.

-              What? What is it?

Toudou locked their lips together and kissed him so earnestly and passionately it swept Makishima off his feet, almost to the point of making him forget about the hard cock sheathed inside his body. When they had to pull apart to breathe properly there wasn’t an inch of space between them, which was exactly how they liked it. Toudou put a hand at Makishima’s nape.

-              I love you. I love you so fucking much

Makishima’s lips opened in the smile he couldn’t control, the one that had nothing creepy about it, the elusive and fleeting one that you couldn’t demand, couldn’t force out but could only admire when it was gifted to you, treasuring it like the miracle it was. The one that made Toudou fall in love again and again.

-              I love you too, you dumb idiot.

There was more kissing, and touching, and a sensible change in the mood that they embraced whole-heartedly; then, Toudou shifted his weight a little and the friction re-ignited the sparks. Pleasure built slowly that time, with less role-playing and more laughter, but still with same emotional involvement – a familiar dance that renewed itself every time.

Being Toudou the generous lover that he was, climax hit Makishima first, and when Toudou was ready and came himself, Makishima was prepared: not only he kept Toudou from pulling away and let him spill inside, but he opened his arms and welcomed him there as soon as the wave had passed, and caressed his sides.

-              I’m pretty sure love is a nice thing, Jinpachi, not something you should cry about…

-              S-Shut up. I’m not c-crying!

Makishima hugged him tightly, feeling his own eyes burn.

-              Of course not, Jinpachi. Of course.

*

-              Did I go too far earlier?

They had taken quick turns under the shower to clean themselves up a little and were relaxing together in the bathtub, facing each other, a rubber duck floating between the two of them. Makishima looked up and stopped massaging Toudou’s foot.

-              What do you mean?

-              I… I didn’t really mean to call you…

Makishima smiled and nudged Toudou with his foot.

-              It’s fine. Still, I didn’t know you were into dirty talk.

Toudou stuttered.

-              I’m not!

Makishima looked at him incredulously. Toudou blushed.

-              I mean… I didn’t. Know it. I didn’t know it either. It just came out.

Makishima lowered himself in the tub and pulled Toudou’s leg on his lap again.

-              I liked it. A lot.

-              Yes, I got that much.

Toudou spread out his arms, above the water, in a clear invitation that was also a silent plea. Makishima went willingly, paying attention to not slosh water everywhere in the tiny bathroom. It felt weird, to have this perpetual need to be so close and in physical contact with each other, but it also felt excruciatingly fulfilling to give in and indulge themselves.

-              Sorry for ruining the mood, then. I lost it, at some point. You broke me.

Makishima hummed and caressed his arms.

-              It’s alright. We can try again, next time, if the mood is the right one.

Toudou kissed his wet temple.

-              That, I can do.

They stayed silent for a while, enjoying the soft lights, warm temperature and lull of the sweet scented, hot water.

-              Jinpachi?

-              …yes?

-              Can you try to grab me by the hair and pull it next time you fuck me roughly from behind?

Toudou sputtered and choked on his own tongue, then tried to drown himself in the tub from second-hand embarrassment. Makishima pulled him out by his hair.

-              Can you?

Toudou spit out some water and a few bubbles and flushed scarlet.

-              You can’t ask me these things out of the blue with such a straight face!

-              Why?

-              Because it’s not fair!

-              Well, pray tell, then: how should I ask?

The question turned into a staring contest, a game that usually favoured Toudou. Usually.

-              Ugh. Fine! I’ll try!

Makishima pecked him on the lips and sat between Toudou’s legs, wrapping Toudou’s arms around himself.

-              Jinpachi?

-              Yes.

-              …I’m sorry about your sofa?

-              Maki-chan, I’m quite literally equally responsible for that. That’s what we get for being stupid and forgetting condoms. Hopefully, it won’t stain.

-              Tell me if it does, I’ll take responsibility.

-              How nice of you.

-              Are you making fun of me?

-              I wouldn’t dare.

Makishima pinched his thigh under the water. Toudou yelped and answered in kind. Makishima grumbled and they called it quits.

-              Maki-chan.

-              Yes?

-              I’m happy you’re staying for a couple of days.

Makishima caressed his arms.

-              Me too. I wish I didn’t have to leave, to be honest.

Toudou swallowed and grabbed his hands.

-              Then don’t. Stay here. I mean… go. Then come back here.

-              …what are you asking me, Jinpachi?

Toudou kissed his shoulder and held him close.

-              More than asking, I’m …proposing? Come live here. With me. It won’t change anything when you travel, but it would be…convenient, you know, when you don’t.

Makishima held his breath.

-              Jinpachi… I need my space. A lot of space.

And he could feel Toudou deflate and withdraw behind him, so he gripped his hands firmly.

-              Ren’s future is in the UK. Mine… is not. He has already made plans for the upcoming year: he’s settling down with his English girlfriend, they’re getting married, he has even started shipping stuff to London. In… in a while, I’ll be by myself in a pretty big flat, with an operative office and atelier on the other side of the hallway and a running outlet a bunch of floors below…

-              Maki-chan, what is it that you’re trying to say?

-              …that in a few months I will have a lot of space. Possibly more than I will need. And that it could be… lonely, with no one to share it with anymore.

-              Are you…

-              I think it’s not very practical for me to come live with you, Jinpachi. But perhaps you would consider coming to live with me?

Toudou didn’t answer straight away and Makishima could feel hot drops running down his back – and although he couldn’t know for sure where they came from, the heavy breathing coming from over his shoulder told him it probably wasn’t from Toudou’s wet fringe. Makishima swallowed his apprehension and gave Toudou the time he needed. Still, it felt a bit like his heart had resumed its beating when he replied.

-              Of course I’m coming, silly. I was the one that asked first..!

Makishima turned around swiftly, this time not caring about the water splashing out of the tub, and latched himself onto Toudou’s neck, as uncomfortable as the position was.

-              Thank you.

-              This is so unfair! How come you get to be the cool one when I was the one that staged the proposal?!

Makishima laughed a wet laugh, a bit emotional himself.

-              That’s my job coming out in me: you see, what I do for a living is to jump on every train I encounter – I stumble on something, anything, inspiring? I turn it inside out and make it into something that bears my signature. Sometimes I know no boundaries.

Toudou chuckled.

-              My job, instead, is to make sure people understand their limits and reach their goals one step at a time, at their own pace and in tune with the requests of their own bodies.

-              I could use some discipline.

-              That’s an understatement.

-              And some gentle care.

-              You can trust me on that one.

-              And it would make me very happy to see your face every night when I go to sleep.

-              …there are pictures for that.

-              You can’t make love to a picture, Jinpachi.

Toudou kissed him.

-              And what about me? What do I get out of this? Apart from an endless supply of underwear and sex toys?

Makishima pretended to think about it.

-              I can bring a whole new world of colours into your life.

Toudou smiled and wrapped around him with deliberate transport.

You already have.

-              Deal.